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With: Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, Dash Mihok, Tim Blake Nelson, Nick Nolte, John C. Reilly, Larry Romano, John Savage, John Travolta, Thomas Jane, Miranda Otto, Nick Stahl
Written by: Terrence Malick, based on the novel by James Jones
Directed by: Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating: R for realistic war violence and language
Running Time: 170
Date: 23/12/1998
IMDB

The Thin Red Line (1998)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Art of War

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Writer/director Terrence Malick's third film was a rumor for as long as anyone can remember. Then The Thin Red Line became a reality -- it existed, but it was a waiting game for it to be released. Finally the studio decided to get it in December 25, to qualify for the 1998 Academy Awards. I saw it December 23, exhausted, but enraptured, excited for a mythical movie living up to its potential.

The studio needn't have bothered trying for Academy Awards. Sadly, Steven Spielberg's equally epic World War II movie had been released six months before and become a worldwide hit. Saving Private Ryan is a technical masterpiece, a crowd pleaser with all the correct cues in place, so that the audience knows what to feel and when to feel it. It's going to win all the Oscars that rightfully belong to The Thin Red Line. The Thin Red Line will not be so huge a hit. It requires one to rely on your own thoughts and emotions.

The movie is based on the 1962 novel by James Jones, whose novels were the basis for the 1950's hits From Here to Eternity and Some Came Running. It's a war story, mostly covering the U.S. capturing Guadalcanal from the Japanese, but Malick brilliantly and beautifully turns war into a launching ground for higher metaphors. Where Saving Private Ryan had as its theme "war bad... family good," Malick wants us to look at the nature of man, the world, and the universe. Every single shot has some kind of poetic paradox, from the very first shot of a crocodile slithering into the swamp, to a bird being born and dying in the middle of a battle, to the tall wavy grass against the huge sky, to the soldiers passing by an elderly Melanesian and doing nothing. Malick wants us to think about the duality of everything. Man fighting man seems ridiculously small when you think of the battles between earth and sky, water and land, past and present, truth and lies.

Many critics have complained about the voiceover narration in the movie. There are several characters, many of them played by unfamiliar faces. And many of those faces look quite a bit alike. We are never really sure who is speaking. This did not bother me, as it carried home Malick's point that man is just one part of nature, not the whole of it. That individuals should stand out in the jungle doesn't make sense. Unfortunately, we do have a lot of recognizable actors in The Thin Red Line. This I blame on the business of moviemaking. For without his cast featuring Nick Nolte, John Cusack, Sean Penn, John Travolta, George Clooney, and Woody Harrelson, Malick probably would not have been able to make a movie this ambitious. Besides these familiar faces, I knew Ben Chaplin (The Truth About Cats and Dogs) and Elias Koteas (Crash). At the same time, some of these big stars are only on screen for two or three minutes of the movie's 3-hour running time. Malick could be saying that even stars are human.

I'm not advocating that each man should withdrawal into a huge lump of mankind. I'm not against individuality. Malick is not either. He's simply trying to put perspective in the world. War to him is insignificant next to nature. War to most of us would be a big deal, as it is to Steven Spielberg. It takes a huge mind and imagination to suggest such an idea.

Back to the business of moviemaking, though. I want to mention the work of cinematographer John Toll (Braveheart) for bringing the battle scenes to life. His camera swoops over the huge field of tall deadly grass, and stumbles in and out of the little huts in the villages. The Thin Red Line is the equal of Saving Private Ryan in creating devastatingly potent battle sequences. And it is its superior in cinematic poetry.

The business of Hollywood moviemaking only allows for a movie this ambitious and epic once in a lifetime. For another like it you have to go all the way back to Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) or even Malick's last movie Days of Heaven (1978). (Movies like Platoon are too small and insignificant in comparison.) This kind of filmmaking is only allowed when Hollywood develops an awed reverence for an artist. It happened after Coppola delivered his Godfather movies and was allowed to make Apocalypse Now. It happened when Cameron was allowed to make Titanic. Because Malick disappeared for 20 years, his reputation blossomed and became legendary, making a legendary movie like The Thin Red Line possible. It is an extraordinary achievement.

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