Heroes are measured by what they do.
Nearly 60 years after the end of the Second World War, it's difficult to imagine that a film about that all-too-familiar struggle between democracy and fascism could present an audience with anything new. Gregory Hoblit's Hart's War deserves commendation for trying: it tackles issues such as race in the armed forces, a theme often neglected or glossed over in the cinema of war; the preferential treatment of "favorite sons"; military justice in a prisoner-of-war compound; and, just for good measure, things like honor and courage.
But before you get too comfortable, know this: Hart's War top-bills Bruce Willis, but he's playing not the title character.
Facts of the Case
If it could be said that any American soldier in Europe was enjoying an easy war in 1944, Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell, Minority Report) was that soldier. His status as the son of a U.S. Senator landed him a cushy desk job in cozy surroundings far distant from the battle lines. But Tommy Hart's painless war ends the day he falls into enemy hands while on a routine chauffeur run. Captured by Germans masquerading as American military police, Hart is tortured, humiliated, forced to divulge the locations of key Allied fuel dumps, marched for six days through brutal winter conditions, and finally locked down in a Nazi POW camp commanded by the icy yet sophisticated Col. Visser (Marcel Iures, The Peacemaker) for the duration of the conflict.
Hart's life scarcely improves within the confines of the stalag. Ranking American officer Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis, the Die Hard trilogy, Unbreakable) rightly suspects Tommy's surrender of Allied secrets to his Nazi captors, and banishes the young lieutenant to the enlisted men's barracks. De facto leader among Hart's new roommates is a conniving former policeman named Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser, who co-starred previously with Colin Farrell in another military opus, Tigerland), the stalag's resident procurement genius—imagine Sgt. Bilko with a nasty attitude. Bedford acquires, seemingly from thin air, a pair of combat boots for Hart to replace the now-battered dress shoes the lieutenant has been wearing since his capture.
Camp life intensifies with the arrival of two new prisoners: African-American pilots Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard, Angel Eyes, Glitter) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon from TV's 24). When the Tuskegee Airmen are ordered by McNamara to bunk with Hart and the non-coms, hostility erupts between the black officers and the white enlisted men, particularly the bitterly racist Bedford. An act of treachery results in two deaths: first, Lt. Archer is executed by a German firing squad after being falsely accused of harboring a weapon; then Sgt. Bedford is murdered, with the circumstantial evidence pointing squarely at Lt. Scott. McNamara assigns Hart, a second-year Yale law student before the war, to defend Scott at a court-martial over which the battle-scarred colonel will preside.
Scott (understandably, given the vitriolic treatment he's received from his fellow Yanks since his and Archer's arrival) remains dubious about the flavor of justice he's being served. The irony is not lost on the accused flyer that his appointed counsel hasn't yet graduated law school, while the prosecuting officer is a full-fledged attorney, or that the very same Col. McNamara who refused him his rightful billet in the officers' quarters will now officiate over his trial. But what neither Hart nor Scott yet knows is that far more is at stake here than the outcome of this kangaroo court-martial, more even than the individual lives of the prisoners in Col. Visser's stalag.
Hart's War is at once an oddly atypical war film and an abortive social commentary. I say "abortive" in the latter case because the script, drafted by Terry George (writer/director of the HBO Vietnam drama A Bright Shining Lie) and rewritten by Billy Ray (whose words previously found a home in Bruce Willis's mouth in The Color of Night) from a novel by John Katzenbach, can't decide whether its racism-in-the-military observations are genuinely important or mere filler to get the plot where it ultimately wants to go. It's too bad, because what use the film does make of the conflicts that arose in the pre-integration armed forces when black and white personnel wound up in close quarters is both interesting and surprisingly well handled.
A similar indetermination swamps the last third of the film. Without giving anything away, I'll say that director Hoblit and his screenwriters succumb to a mad desire to give each of the characters in whom the audience has made some emotional investment—Hart, Scott, and McNamara—separate chances to make huge—and irrational, in my opinion—self-sacrifices. One of these occurrences unfolds via a frightful and clumsy dialogue sequence, another in embarrassingly melodramatic fashion, and the third simply doesn't make sense in context. All three of these big heroic moments fly in the face of what we have already accepted to be true concerning each of the characters, and even in the face of what we could reasonably expect from these men in their given situations. Added together, they leave the viewer feeling unsatisfied—perhaps even unfairly manipulated—when the credits roll.
These few complaints aside, Hoblit does a creditable job of weaving an entertaining movie out of this material. His story moves along steadily and never flags despite a lengthy run time. It's just that, in this Judge's opinion at least, an even better—even a great—film could have been crafted from these same thematic elements. But then, that's exactly what I said after watching Hoblit's last two feature films, Frequency, his mystical father-son relationship drama with Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, and Fallen, his supernatural thriller starring Denzel Washington: "That was decent, but it could have been so much better."
As with his previous works, Hoblit benefits in Hart's War from some marvelous acting talent. Colin Farrell continues to impress after his stellar performance in Tigerland; I'm especially amazed at the consistent American accent work from this Irish actor. Farrell effectively grows his character from a callow, pampered young man to a strong, courageous soldier. Hart also grows in confidence as an attorney from the beginning of the court-martial, when he is unsure and tentative, to his summation, when he is clear-eyed and confident. Bruce Willis dusts off his steely-eyed military commander from The Siege and replays the character almost identically: Colonel McNamara, like General Devereaux, is a career soldier who knows what it takes to accomplish his mission and will pay the price regardless of the number of people whose bodies he must step over to do it. Terrence Howard's stalwart pilot, resigned to the inequities the color of his skin force him to endure, is sympathetic and noble without overdoing the angelic routine. His heartfelt speech in his own defense on the witness stand could have stepped horribly wrong if played too emotionally, but Howard manages to make it both suitably impassioned and acceptably dignified. Likewise, Marcel Iures prevents his Nazi commandant from degenerating into Colonel Klink caricature (drat! I was determined to complete this review without a single Hogan's Heroes reference!) without flipping the dial the other way and rending the character too admirable. You'll despise Col. Visser for what he is, but yet grudgingly understand who he is. The other supporting cast members also acquit themselves well—Cole Hauser's Bedford reeks with the musty stench of bigotry, but is portrayed as a real person with genuine (if despicable) emotions and a backstory, not merely as a plot device.
In keeping with the environment and circumstances in which Hart's War takes place, cinematographer Alar Kivilo (also behind Hoblit's camera for Frequency) spreads out before us a cold, grim, joyless world of biting winter—all grays, browns and dingy white snow. The outdoor scenes, especially those early in the film before Lt. Hart arrives in the prison camp, are nothing short of stunning. You'll feel the fog of every breath and the sear of every snowflake. Complementing this bleak vision is a moving, spectral score by Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules, Chocolat).
MGM offers two choices of presentation of Hart's War on this DVD: a beautifully crisp anamorphic transfer for the majority of viewers, and a full-frame alternative for the cinematically bankrupt. The 2.35:1 widescreen edition shows the film brilliantly, with nary a print fault or digital defect to be seen. As indicated above, the filmmakers worked within a constricted color palette here, but contrasts are flawless and the overall texture is rich and lifelike.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track works quite well, considering that it isn't given a great deal of heavy lifting to assay. The sound field is sufficiently enveloping, with active if subdued response in the surrounds. It's thunderous when it needs to be, and clean otherwise. Dialogue is strong and perfectly captured, as is the excellent score. Optional stereo soundtracks and subtitles are offered in French, Spanish and Portuguese.
Two audio commentaries, the first of which features director Hoblit, screenwriter Ray, and star Willis, headline the supplement section of the DVD. Hoblit and Ray were recorded together; Willis' comments are edited into the track. The DVD producers apparently believed they could convince the audience that Willis, too, was present for the recording session with Hoblit and Ray by inserting his occasional "Right," "Uh-huh," or "Absolutely" after one of the others has spoken. Only the hearing-impaired would be fooled by this tactic, as the Willis track is of starkly inferior audio quality compared to the Hoblit/Ray material. Editing legerdemain aside, Hoblit and Ray present an informative and lively commentary that, frankly, doesn't need the random interpolations from Willis for any reason other than novelty value. A second commentary by producer David Foster, however, is a yawner—superfluous, dreary, dull, and offering nothing of interest. Stick with the first commentary track and you'll thank yourself afterward.
A set of ten deleted scenes can be viewed either with or without voiceover by Hoblit. These scenes can also be accessed individually or run as a continuous feature. Since the film is already over two hours long, it's easy to see why these cuts were made. On the other hand, some nice character moments—particularly for actors Howard, Hauser and Shannon—landed on the cutting room floor, as did a gratuitous sequence with the POWs performing a blackface minstrel show.
The theatrical trailer for Hart's War, presented in widescreen, offers an argument for random competence testing of MGM's publicity staff. Not only does the trailer reveal almost every crucial development in the film, including several plot points that are out-and-out spoilers, but it presents the movie as a splashy bombs-and-bullets war extravaganza along the lines of, say, Pearl Harbor when in fact it's not that kind of film at all. No wonder Hart's War tanked at the box office—who'd bother to see the movie after watching this trailer?
A four-part photo gallery totaling about 45 pictures and commercials for John Woo's Windtalkers and the TV shows Stargate SG-1 and Jeremiah round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
With a young law student named Hart at center stage, I kept expecting John Houseman as Professor Kingsfield to miraculously appear at some point during this film, glowering under caterpillar eyebrows and intoning ominously, "Mr. HART!" But that's probably just a side effect of this new medication I'm taking.
Hart's War is a good film that could have been a great film, maybe with just a complete rethinking of the last 40 pages of the script. But I'll stress the fact that it's still a good film, and worthy of better than the swift boot it received at the box office. Fans of war movies, quality drama and exceptional acting will find this a worthwhile investment of two hours and change.
The cast of Hart's War is acquitted on all charges. Its director and screenwriters are found guilty on misdemeanor counts of biting off perhaps more than they could chew, and sentenced to six weekends community service feeding loaves of bread to suffering POWs. MGM is fined the cost of two dozen rentals at Blockbuster for continuing to pander to pan-and-scan illiteracy, and for a spoiler-rife and deceptive trailer. We're adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Gregory Hoblit, Screenwriter Billy Ray, and Actor Bruce Willis
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