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Friday, April 9, 1999


The Zen in the art of war

Sunlight streams through gently swaying palms. An alligator descends into an algae-clotted stream. Parrots glance inquisitively at the presence of man. Aboriginals bathe in the scintillatingly azure ocean off a tropical isle. A pensive voiceover wonders, "why does nature vie with itself?" Bombs fall, bodies fly. Soldiers throw themselves up a hill into certain death in the form of thudding machine-gun fire. A private falls fatally wounded in the tall grass, his death unmarked. One soldier, numb to the carnage around him, notices -- perhaps for the last time -- the beauty of one, single leaf.

That, in a nutshell, is director Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," his poetic adaptation of James Jones' ("From Here To Eternity") decidedly realist novel on the 1942 battle of Guadalcanal. The story follows a U.S. infantry company as it hits the beach, and is forced to engage in a brutal charge on a well-defended hill. The film -- like the book -- seeks to offer multiple perspectives, drawn from the inner thoughts and diverse experiences of the men thrown into battle.

There's Col. Tall (Nick Nolte), the megalomaniac officer who orders a foolhardy frontal assault to gain some glory, and Captain Staros (Elias Koteas, "Exotica"), the well-meaning officer who opposes him in order to save his men. On the periphery are men like Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin), who dreams of the wife he left behind, Sgt. Storm (John C. Reilly, "Boogie Nights"), who has become brutally desensitized, and Captain Gaff (John Cusack), who displays a quiet heroism.

But central to the film -- and Malick's interpretation -- are Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel) and Sgt. Welsh (Sean Penn), complete philosophical opposites. Welsh is the pragmatic cynic, out only to survive the war.

"In this world, a man himself ain't nothing," says Welsh, "and there ain't no world but this one." Witt, a wide-eyed dreamer who has just spent a few lazy days AWOL, living free with the island's natives, can only reply, "You're wrong. I seen another world."

Malick is constantly reinforcing this theme, digressing into dreamlike reveries of pure visual poetics, which contrast the glorious Eden-like beauty of this tropical idyll with the savage horror that man has brought upon it. Imagine "Saving Private Ryan" intercut with "Baraka" and you'd be getting close. But like the film's dichotomy, it's easy to be of two minds regarding "The Thin Red Line," Malick's comeback after a 20-year hiatus.

In the two highly regarded and visually stunning films the reclusive director has previously released -- 1973's " Badlands," and 1978's "Days Of Heaven" -- Malick proved himself to be the artiest of Hollywood directors. (No surprise given his past life as a professor of philosophy at M.I.T.) With "The Thin Red Line," however, this tendency proves to be both blessing and bane.

Visually, the film is never less than astounding. Cinematographer John Toll's camerawork captures the tropical locale's lush beauty with brilliant clarity, and nearly every frame is a work of art in and of itself. Particularly effective is the eye-level camerawork, which stalks tensely through the tall grass.

Malick's freeform editing style -- almost a form of impressionistic collage -- builds to some unforgettable moments, such as when a dying young soldier looks up, and with his last breath sees the white noon sunlight streaming through shrapnel-riddled leaves. Or a deep azure dusk, with smoke trailing over the battlefield and dogs gnawing on corpses, an eerie vision of hell on earth.

The actors who are given enough lines to develop their characters -- Nolte, Koteas, Cusack, and Penn -- are excellent. But too many characters remain thinly sketched, with big names like John Travolta and George Clooney just passing through. This sense of vagueness is compounded by multiple voiceovers in which the narrator's identity is often unclear. And the key character of Pvt. Witt remains a bit too much of a blank to engage the audience, his zen-like demeanor and detached musings on man's nature a far cry from the rebellious Witt of the novel.

Particularly unwise was the film's penultimate scene, in which one soldier sacrifices himself to save his comrades -- it's overly staged, and comes across as heavy-handed as a similar scene from Oliver Stone's " Platoon." Make no mistake: Malick's film is less about World War II per se, than about paradise lost, man's alienation from natural grace. While it's a valid move to render the war on a mythic level, Malick draws it with far too broad strokes, particularly in his highly idealised view of the pre-modern " Eden" of the natives. As such, "The Thin Red Line" is both insightful and pretentious, moving and impersonal. While it has one foot rooted in the savage realism of "Saving Private Ryan," and another in the metaphysical surrealism of "Apocalypse Now," it doesn't settle into or satisfy entirely in either style. Despite the superlatives heaped on this film -- including the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival -- the film ends up playing as two hours of pure genius, diluted by an additional hour of rambling. But while this may not be the masterpiece that the director was aiming for, it's flaws are forgivable -- see it for what Malick did achieve.

"The Thin Red Line' is playing at Marunouchi Louvre and other theaters.

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