Beautiful and sumptuous, the picture marked the end of Terrence Malick’s 20+ year absence from film. Ostensibly about an offensive during the Guadalcanal campaign, the film follows Privates Bell (Ben Chaplin) and Witt (Jim Caviezel) as they are deposited on a Pacific island to take an enemy air base deep inland. They are accompanied along the way by Private John Savage, Sergeants Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly, Lieutenant John Cusack, Captains Elias Koteas and George Clooney, Colonel Nick Nolte, General John Travolta and a host of other young actors playing infantrymen.
The first time I saw this picture, the characters did not register. It seemed like a glut of talent working with limited space, and the result was disjointed and, at worst, high falutin’. I wrote:
Koteas and Cusack register, the former as a humanistic officer who cannot accept the slaughter of his men for a greater good and the latter as a brave underling who shows true leadership in a grave hour. Nolte is standard spit and scream (it is truly amazing how red he can make his face). Penn, Harrelson, Clooney, and Travolta are cardboard, and Reilly is given a short, hackneyed speech on how he has become hardened by the war. Savage in particular is really, really bad as a soldier who has cracked under the strain of combat. It’s hard to believe that Savage, so good in 1978’s The Deer Hunter, was revived for such histrionics 20 years later.
I was harsh and/or wrong. On re-viewing, most of the characters do register, and they often make lasting imprints with little screen time. Further, Malick’s use of the voice-over in their heads, which initially struck me as a distracting cheat, is much more than that. It’s an ambitious technique to not only get us in their minds practically (which, in combat, would likely be an inner monologue of “oh fuck, of fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck”) but philosophically as they wrestle inner demons and regrets while negotiating external hostility.
The film is lush and visually riveting, from the beauty of the ship cutting through the Pacific prior to disembarkation of its armed cargo (filmed directly down from the prow), to the stark image of a dismembered mine team, alone among the peacefully covered foliage (the first carnage the company witnesses) to the killing of two men by a Japanese sniper – they fall poignantly in the tall grass before the vista of a misty, impossibly beautiful hillside. Malick’s juxtaposition of the wonders of nature and the blight that is the intrusion of combat is jaw-dropping.
Hanz Zimmer’s score supports the sense of dread and beauty, intertwining the exotic of the island and the tick-tic-tick of the danger therein.
Malick does makes some fundamental errors that, I’m sure, seem niggling in the light of the ambition of the project. For example, Witt and Bell look alike and they kind of sound alike and when two men are running around in battle and doing voice overs, that becomes problematic. The cameo factor can also be distracting because actors are trying to make their mark in the short time allotted. As such, Travolta is weird as an ambitious general, and Clooney shows up at the end for a few lines (since you still haven’t seen Clooney until the end of the picture, you fear he may be pivotal and you have that much longer until the end).
Still, nits aside, this is a worthwhile epic.