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Hart's War

Moviegoers are used to seeing too many plot details revealed in a film's trailer. We're also not completely surprised when a movie turns out somewhat differently than the trailer might imply. But we do expect that
the trailer will at least give us an idea of what the movie is like.

So, viewers of the Hart's War trailer and commercials will be excused for thinking that the film is a rousing action picture set in and around a WWII POW camp. We see lots of explosions, Bruce Willis rallying the troops, and hints of some espionage against the Nazis. And it's true--all of those elements are in Hart's War, but it is not a rousing action picture.

Instead, it's a somewhat deliberate exploration of the meaning of honor in wartime. Using a court-room sequence as a plot device, Hart's War explores the conflicts between American soldiers who are prisoners of war.

Lt. Thomas W. Hart (Colin Farrell) is an officer in the U.S. Army, but he's not likely to see combat, as his father is a U.S. Senator and has arranged for Tom to handle logistics far away from the front. But one cold winter morning, Lt. Hart is driving a colonel in a jeep when he's ambushed by German soldiers. The colonel is killed, and Lt. Hart is taken prisoner.

After being interrogated by the Germans for several days, Lt. Hart is stuck on a train with hundreds of other American POWs. The harrowing train ride is followed by a long march, and finally they arrive at Stalag VI. There, Tom is debriefed by Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), the ranking American officer. Col. McNamara is fourth-generation West Point, we're told, and he  makes a quick assessment of Hart's qualities based on how long Hart was interrogated. It's not favorable.

Hart takes the snub in stride, though, and he's soon making friends with the enlisted men in his barracks. But things take a dramatic turn when two black POWs, who happen to be Air Force officers, come into camp. Though the two are officers, they're stuck in the enlisted men's barracks where they're subject to racist comments and much worse. What will Lt. Hart and Col. McNamara do?

Hart's War does a nice job of keeping the audience in the dark. The screenplay by Billy Ray and Terry George never gives away too much regarding Col. McNamara's motivations. Is he a racist? Does he have Lt.Hart's best interests in mind? Indeed, what is he up to? The camp's German commander Werner Visser (Marcel Iures) is also enigmatic. He's no Col. Klink, but his sophisticated cosmopolitanism (Visser likes to read Mark Twain while he listens to Duke Ellington) creates a level of ambiguity that serves the movie well as we wonder about his motivations.

The acting in Hart's War is solid. This is not Colin Farrell's first war movie; he was in last year's Tigerland. Here, though, he offers a nicely stoic performance as a man somewhat resigned to his fate. Bruce Willis (The Sixth Sense) doesn't have to do a lot besides act professionally intimidating, but he carries that off with aplomb. The criminally-underused Terrence Howard (The Best Man) is fantastic as one of the black POWs, though he, too, doesn't have a lot to do. My favorite actor, though is Romania's Marcel Iures. He adds a wonderfully sardonic touch to the role of a Nazi commander.

As with most war movies, the production details are impressive. Lilly Kilvert's set design makes you feel like you're in prisoner-of-war camp, and cinematographer Alar Kivilo uses a subtle blue filter that makes this
winter drama feel like the temperature is way below zero. And the film's sound design is a marvel. When a plane flies overhead, you'll swear you can see the seats shaking in front of you.

The movie's one drawback--its final thirty minutes--is a significant one. Not content to make the American soldiers merely honorable, Hart's War goes over the top. As its tagline says, "Beyond Courage, Beyond Honor." Make that way beyond honor, as Hart, McNamara, and Lt. Lincoln Scott (Howard's character) each take turns outdoing each other in the race to see who's willing to sacrifice more. It gets genuinely silly at the end, and the movie's reach for glory falls painfully flat. Then, as if we in the audience were too dense to understand what's just happened, we're treated to a banal voiceover pontificating on the nature of heroism and honor. Please!

Despite the film's awful conclusion, Hart's War is a nice change of pace for the war movie. Eschewing most of the big battle scenes, it instead focuses on the relationships of soldiers who don't always get along even as
they serve under the same flag. As long as you're not expecting what the preview "promises," you probably won't be disappointed. 

J. Robert Parks 2/11/2002



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