War as Nature Documentary

The Thin Red Line

Terrence Malick spent 20 years away from Hollywood, 10 of those bringing The Thin Red Line to theaters. The work that ended up on the screen clearly stewed too long in one man’s brain, and I expect the movie the reclusive director thought he made is actually quite different from the one I saw. It thinks it is (or pretends to be) deep and revelatory, but its many messages on the subject of war are so nebulous and clichéd that the film reduces itself to a series of beautifully realized visual contradictions on the theme of man versus nature.

Based on James Jones’ novel of the same name, Malick’s movie needed somebody to tell its creator: “Looks great, but what’s your point? And do you really want actors and a war in there? They only muck up the gorgeous nature documentary you’re making.”

The bulk of the movie concerns an American rifle company’s struggle to take a hill from the Japanese during the pivotal Battle of Guadalcanal in World War II. The entire sequence is suspenseful and well-told, with scenes of chaos followed by clarity. The audience gets a real sense of the strategy of the individual battle (and without clumsy exposition) as well as the tense standoff between the pensive, sensitive leader on the front (Elias Koteas) and his grizzled, frothing superior (Nick Nolte, so clearly created for the role).

This center is largely a self-contained drama, and would have made for an elliptical, strangely powerful movie by itself. Malick puts the soldiers and the war on vibrantly photographed backgrounds that are meticulously, beautifully framed by the director. The violence, the explosions, the blood, and the dirty, weary soldiers stand in stark contrast and opposition to the peace and magnificence of the natural world.

The problem comes in the before and after, when striking images elbow interior monologues and under-drawn characters for attention, without any real narrative to propel the goings-on. The Thin Red Line, as a result, is startlingly flaccid at both ends. Malick either hasn’t a clue what he’s trying to say or mistakes his ambiguity for profundity and art. Either way, it’s virtually impossible to say something new about war, and any combat film is going to be judged in the long run on its narrative skill, compression, and technical prowess. One out of three, Terry. See you in 20.

The casting choices further muddle the mix. Screen unknowns in the beefiest roles add a necessary sense of anonymity to the soldiers but are too indistinct when Malick tries to bring them forward as characters. It’s no wonder that I thought the married soldier (Ben Chaplin) and Private AWOL (Jim Caviezel) were one and the same.

The recognizable stars — Sean Penn, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson — stick out too much, but at least the audience can recognize them when they show up after prolonged absences. The performances are mostly strong, but only Nolte and Koteas register as characters instead of actors playing them. Among the casting problems, though, pointless cameos by John Travolta (with an amusingly bad mustache) and George Clooney do the most damage, disruptive intrusions of star power and showy testaments to Malick’s legend.

Of course, it’s hard not to consider The Thin Red Line in the context of that other over-praised, nearly three-hour WWII epic we had to endure shortly before this one. Saving Private Ryan’s flaws are more obvious, but they’re also easier to forgive. I would have preferred that the two directors collaborated, making one movie with Spielberg’s story drive and flair for visual and aural horror tempered by Malick’s eye for beauty and disdain for cheap emotional manipulation.

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