Paramount // 1985 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jeff Andreasen (Retired) // September 5th, 2005
Witness has been around so long, and so ubiquitously on cable television, that everyone in America -- including the Amish and Luddites -- must know the story: Amish lad Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas, Mars Attacks!, 24), stranded with his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun, The Accused), in a Philadelphia train station, witnesses a brutal murder. Enter Detective John Book (Harrison Ford), who has to figure out a way to keep the Amish pair in Philly until he can dope out the crime. Alas, Samuel fingers crooked cop James McFee (Danny Glover, Lethal Weapon), and Book is obligated to report the foul deeds to his superior, Chief Paul Schaeffer (Josef Sommer, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood). Turns out Schaeffer's dirty, too, and Book and McFee blaze away at each other in the heat of the night. Wounded, John books out of Philly with Samuel and Rachel in tow, determined to keep them safe and alive. He returns with them to their Amish community in Lancaster, Pa., where Rachel nurses the detective back to health, and he experiences the Amish lifestyle firsthand before the bad guys track him down for a final culture clash.
After a number of directors turned down Witness, Peter Weir, eager to work abroad (he'd worked almost exclusively in his native Australia for his entire career), told his agent to get him that contract! He met with Harrison Ford, who had already signed on, and the two hit it off. Ford was eager to branch out after raking in the cash and notoriety from the megahit Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, and had immediately taken a shine to the cerebral script. Lukas Haas, fresh from exposure in Testament and Love Thy Neighbor, was signed for the titular role, and Kelly McGillis came on board after a visit from Weir and Ford at the coffee shop where she worked at the time. Former Soviet Bloc residents Jan Rubes (Dead of Winter, Class Action) and Alexander Godunov (Die Hard, The Money Pit) rounded out the main cast, while unknown newcomer Viggo Mortensen (GI Jane, Hidalgo, and, of course, The Lord of the Rings) signed on as Godunov's onscreen brother.
Witness was the critical darling of 1985 and was nominated for a boatload of awards, notably best actor, best picture, and best director. The film and director Weir lost to Out of Africa at the Oscars, and Ford was outvoted by William Hurt for Kiss of the Spider Woman, but Witness has endured and is more fondly remembered than either of those movies. The story is more accessible to American audiences than the snooty, upper class love affair portrayed in the interminable Out of Africa or the dourness and complexity of Kiss of the Spider Woman, and it had the benefit of Harrison Ford in the prime of his superstardom.
Looking back with this 20th anniversary collector's edition, the movie holds up for what it is: a love story set against a backdrop of culture clash between the peaceful, humble, and quaint Amish and the decidedly unpeaceful, unfriendly, and unmerciful modern society.
There's a reason that Witness was nominated for so many awards: it's an expertly crafted flick. Peter Weir takes his time with the storytelling and makes the effort to get everything right. He took risks in casting virtual unknowns (McGillis, Godunov, Rubes) in make-or-break roles, and didn't mind the heat of directing the biggest box office superhero of all time. He assembled a trustworthy and skilled crew, many of whom garnered nominations of their own for their work on Witness, and wasn't afraid to tell the studio when their great ideas sucked. Credit Weir for Witness's enduring magnetism.
The performances Weir elicited from this diverse cast of action heroes, former ballet dancers, and Broadway veterans is immense. Many of the roles are slight, having little or no time to get anything resembling character across, so mannerisms and delivery are of absolute paramount importance. Danny Glover does a great job manifesting McFee's cold-bloodedness with only a look or a nonchalant line. Actually, I've always found Danny Glover to be more convincing as a creepy menace than as an upstanding good guy. Similarly, Alexander Godunov delivers a perfectly understated and physically nuanced performance as the "other man" in the love triangle. Having only small snippets of script to work with, Godunov makes every glance and every movement meaningful and turns in what is probably the best performance in the film, albeit truncated. It's weird to watch this movie after seeing him in Die Hard, though. I kept expecting him to blow Harrison Ford away, or at the very least go Terrorist-Karl on that impudent tourist's ass toward the end of the film. It's a tragedy that this talented fellow, a defector from the Soviet Union in 1979, died so early in his movie career.
Kelly McGillis does great work with what is undeniably the best-drawn character in the movie. Widowed immediately before the narrative begins, Rachel Lapp is introduced at her husband's funeral. She is appropriately remorseful and sorrowful, but her performance really takes off when she arrives in Philadelphia and the bad things start happening. Her reaction to the situation is convincingly believable. When it dawns on Rachel that there is more to the world than the sheltered Amish life she's been confined in since birth, Kelly McGillis gives a wonderful performance illustrating Rachel's blooming consciousness as well as the trepidation she feels in being all too aware that her father is right: she either toes the Amish line or she makes a go of it in the Englishman's world. It's a hard place to be in, and McGillis gets the torture across magnificently.
Jan Rubes gives a creditable performance as Eli Lapp, the family patriarch, but it's a one-note role: be the sage, stern father type. He executes it in an utterly professional manner. To the script's credit, Eli doesn't become a born-again skeptic, awed by Book's heroics to the point of forsaking his lifelong heritage.
To some, Lukas Haas's performance as Samuel Lapp, the eponymous witness, is problematic. It has been described as bland, doe-eyed, forced, ridiculous. To me, it's perfect. In Philadelphia, the kid's overwhelmed, and he looks it. When he sees McFee slit the narc cop's throat, he can't believe what he's seeing and he looks it...totally nonplussed. He has no idea how to react when McFee starts kicking open the doors, but fortunately, the screenwriters imbue him with a prescience belying his age and innocence. He calms down considerably and opens up to Book when back on the farm. In the finale, his time with Book even gives him the wherewithal to take action rather than just stumble across a corn field to safety...sort of like superhero osmosis.
The plot, though slight, is served well by Weir's deliberate pacing and by Director of Photography John Seale's excellent (and Oscar-nominated) camera work. We can learn more about this by accessing the extras on this worthwhile DVD.
The five-part "Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness" has a lot of interesting information in it, mostly from Weir, but occasionally from stars Kelly McGillis and bit player Viggo Mortensen, who inexplicably figures very prominently in the documentary. Jan Rubes is nowhere to be found, and they didn't bother with Danny Glover, Josef Sommer, or any behind-the-scenes personnel other than Seale. Weir educates the viewer on a lot of things, such as his rationale behind the (at the time considered) dubious casting, and some of his encounters with studio brass. Mortensen, Ford, and Weir all give accounts of the barn-raising scene, and Mortensen himself provides an interesting snippet of where he might be now if Witness hadn't been such a good experience for him. All in all, a very satisfying and informative effort here.
The trailer and television spots are interesting in that the viewer can see how spin is put on these movies in order to market them to every conceivable constituency. The deleted scene is interesting if taken in the context of McGillis's character's development, but worthless when looked at as advancing the plot. It's easy to see why it was excised.
The presentation is spotty. The video is generally very good, though there is noticeable grain (no pun intended) in places, especially the darker, twilight scenes. It's jarring sometimes to go from pristine print to something that looks its age. The audio is okay, though not as deep as one would hope, with reverberating sounds like slamming doors or gunshots not quite as omnipresent among all the speakers as they probably should be. All in all, it doesn't seem as though any extra effort was given to the technical aspects of this 20th anniversary collector's edition than was given to the plain ol' DVD release in 2002.
All in all, there's a lot to recommend this DVD to Witness lovers and movie lorists in general. However, the DVD and the film itself are not without their faults...
"...a slight film...a light film."
It's interesting to hear director Peter Weir say of Witness that it's a "lightweight" film. Interesting because Witness actually is a lightweight film, and because Weir seems the exception to the rule: a director who can look at his work with an objective eye.
The thinly-drawn, half-dimensional characters. The paltry framing device handled as though it's a necessary evil. It's clear where Weir's affections lie. If you look at Weir's oeuvre, the message is clear: civilization sucks. In Witness, the "modern" world is portrayed as cynical, corrupt, and unremittingly violent. In The Mosquito Coast, the "modern" world is portrayed as soulless, unnatural, and unremittingly violent. In Dead Poets Society, the evolving world is portrayed as bleak, artless, and subversive. At the time of Witness's release in 1985, this was viewed as a deep and reflective statement. With the benefit of retrospect, this philosophy bogs the narrative down somewhat, especially as it compels the director to so heavy-handedly paint the life Book came from. Why in the world would the man want to return to such a crappy place? And what would motivate Rachel to act like she wanted to be "among the English"?
There are other plot holes in the film, as well. The most glaring is: why didn't Book and his partner never check the train station's security camera tapes to confirm McFee's presence in the station at the same time the kid saw the murder? With that sort of evidence, it wouldn't matter if Book and his partner were offed; McFee's ring of dirtiness would come crashing down regardless. Compound this with the ludicrousness of some of the police procedural: Book dragging Rachel and Samuel to a ghetto bar to slam a suspect against the car window in an impromptu lineup; or keeping something as corrosive as police corruption quiet...no matter the reason. These are narrative shortcuts and dumb down the framing device, reducing its verisimilitude and demeaning its importance in the story.
The second hole is the rather improbable evolution of Rachel Lapp from shy, retiring Amish maiden to hot-to-trot feminist rebel. When Rachel, chastened by her father for her scurrilous behavior with "the Englishman," retorts with a haughty "You shame yourself," the old codger gawps at her with a look like, "Where'd that come from?" Indeed, there is no indication in the character development of the film released in theaters that even comes close to explaining this bizarre behavior. It doesn't seem possible that she learned it from Book, as the poor guy was overcome with issues of his own. Similarly, it cannot be inferred from the short time spent in Philadelphia that she gleaned enough attitude from Book's sister to so radically alter her lifelong, ingrained perceptions. After viewing the deleted scene, it's possible to conclude that an impressionable Rachel was struck by Book's sister's energetic independence and her outspokenness and experimented a bit, but it's unlikely (at best) to presume that this single night's experience was enough to overthrow a lifetime of upbringing. So where did this "I am woman, hear me roar" swagger come from?
I first saw this movie as a Harrison Ford fan, coming off of Return of the Jedi and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, both poor entries in the franchises' canons, but still heroic fodder for a youthful enthusiast. Even then, it seemed to me that Ford's performance was forced in many places, that he didn't know how to deliver the material he was being asked to. He has since perfected his "soft-spoken, man-out-of-place" style of acting, but here it is very much in test mode. To be honest, though this was indeed Ford's most demanding role to that time, and while he did a creditable job, it is far from the great performance it's been hailed as. Think of it more as a promising start, and one that was delivered upon in later years. The shock of seeing him do something "serious" probably prompted the Academy to slot him the Oscar nod.
In Ford's defense, however, he wasn't given much to work with here. Book has no character whatsoever, he's a dramatic tabula rasa, with no history or motivations with which to base a performance. So we have Book the stereotypical maverick cop in the beginning, and Book the utterly tolerant in the culture clash part. And where did his carpentry expertise come from? "Build a barn? I can do that!" Beyond the actual actor's history as a handyman, this twist comes out of nowhere. Book knew Shaeffer for a long time, maybe he helped build a deck or something. How hard would it have been to slot that into the script? With some character backstory, the juxtaposition of cultures could have been even more jarring and significant, and the pain in Book's eventual departure more meaningful and wrenching, perhaps the backstory even resulting in a very different ending indeed. As the character is presented, however, it doesn't seem to matter much in the long run that he left, or even that any of the events of the movie ever occurred. On to the sequel.
While there's a lot to like about Witness, one cannot ignore the shortcomings of a script that should never have been nominated for -- let alone won -- the Academy Award in 1986 (more evidence of the Academy's perpetually head-scratching decisions and irrelevance as any sort of serious statement on the quality of any film). It's also distractingly anachronistic. The Dirty Harry Method of Policing worked fine in the 1970s and in movies geared for that sort of thing (Death Wish, Die Hard, any Michael Bay flick), but in a "serious" movie like this, one blanches at the unlikelihood of most of Book's actions whilst in Philadelphia. Maurice Jarre's score is also annoyingly out of place.
At the time, Vangelis and electronic music were all the rage after the success of the Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire scores, and in Blade Runner, at least, the music still holds up. But in a film like Witness, the electronic strains and artificiality of the music take the viewer out of the narrative. Granted, Witness is no place for the likes of John Williams, either, but there were plenty of traditional composers at the time who could've handled an orchestral score for this film that would have given it more emotional depth and would have stood the test of time.
The film is guilty of loitering. Witness is a fine, though dated, film, with some good performances, great cinematography, and expert direction. It is noteworthy because it launched the careers of Harrison Ford the Serious Actor and Peter Weir the Statement Director, not because it is inherently great. Listen to the director himself: Witness is a lightweight movie. It's continuing presence on cable television has inured the viewing populace to its shortcomings and has unjustifiably cemented a reputation as a landmark film. I like Witness, but it is no classic.
The DVD, while I'm tempted to cite it for unnecessary double dipping, is found not guilty based on the mitigating circumstances of the five-part featurette, and because this is not exactly a high-end seller. It's a shame more effort wasn't given to cleaning up the sound and image, but that seems par for the course from Paramount.
Let's close the Book on this one. The Witness may step down. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2005 Jeff Andreasen; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2016 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "Between Two Worlds: The Making of Witness" Five-Part Documentary
* Deleted Scene
* Theatrical Trailer
* Three TV Spots
* Harrison Ford: A Web guide to the Films