War and Pieces

Exercises in futility, at war and in the courts.

The Thin Red Line

Directed by Terrence Malick

Fox 2000 Pictures

A Civil Action

Directed by Steve Zaillian

Touchstone Pictures

No movie in the last decade has succeeded in psyching out critics and audiences as fully as the powerful, rambling war epic The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s return to cinema after 20 years. I’ve sat through it twice and am still trying to sort out my responses, which run from awe to mockery and back. Like Saving Private Ryan, the picture wallops you in the gut with brilliant, splattery battle montages and Goyaesque images of hell on earth. But Malick, a certified intellectual and the Pynchonesque figure who directed Badlands and Days of Heaven in the 1970s and then disappeared, is in a different philosophical universe from Steven Spielberg. Post-carnage, his sundry characters philosophize about their experiences in drowsy, runic voice-overs that come at you like slow bean balls: “Why does nature vie with itself? … Is there an avenging power in nature, not one power but two?” Or “This great evil: Where’s it come from? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who’s doin’ this? Who’s killin’ us, robbin’ us of life and light?” First you get walloped with viscera, then you get beaned by blather.

Those existential speculations don’t derive from the screenplay’s source, an archetypal but otherwise down-to-earth 1962 novel by James Jones (who also wrote From Here to Eternity) about the American invasion of the South Pacific island of Guadalcanal. They’re central to Malick’s vision of the story, however, and not specious. In the combat genre, the phrase “war is hell” usually means nothing more than that it’s a bummer to lose a limb or two, or to see your buddy get his head blown off. A true work of art owes us more than literal horrors, and Malick obliges by making his theater of war the setting for nothing less than a meditation on the existence of God.

He tells the story solemnly, in three parts, with a big-deal cast (Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, John Cusack) and a few other major stars (John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, George Clooney) dropping by for cameos. After an Edenic prelude, in which a boyishly idealistic absent without leave soldier, Pvt. Witt (Jim Caviezel), swims with native youths to the accompaniment of a heavenly children’s choir, the first part sees the arrival of the Allied forces on the island, introduces the principal characters (none of whom amounts to a genuine protagonist), and lays out the movie’s geographical and philosophical terrain. The centerpiece–the fighting–goes on for over an hour and features the most frantic and harrowing sequences, chiefly the company’s initially unsuccessful frontal assault on a Japanese hilltop bunker. The coda lasts nearly 40 minutes and is mostly talk and cleanup, the rhythms growing more relaxed until a final, incongruous spasm of violence–whereupon the surviving soldiers pack their gear and motor off to another South Pacific battle. In the final shot, a twisted tree grows on the waterline of the beach, the cycle of life beginning anew.

The Thin Red Line has a curious sound-scape, as the noise of battle frequently recedes to make room for interior monologues and Hans Zimmer’s bump-bump, minimalist New Age music. Pvt. Bell (Ben Chaplin) talks to his curvy, redheaded wife, viewed in deliriously sensual flashbacks. (“Love: Where does it come from? Who lit this flame in us?”) Lt. Col. Tall (Nolte), a borderline lunatic passed over one too many times for promotion and itching to win a battle no matter what the human cost, worries groggily about how his men perceive him. The dreamer Witt poses folksy questions about whether we’re all a part of one big soul. If the movie has a spine, it’s his off-and-on dialogue with Sgt. Welsh (Penn), who’s increasingly irritated by the private’s beatific, almost Billy Budd-like optimism. Says Welsh, “In this world, a man himself is nothin’, and there ain’t no world but this one.” Replies Witt, high cheekbones glinting, “I seen another world.” At first it seems as if Witt will indeed be Billy Budd to Welsh’s vindictive Claggart. But if Witt is ultimately an ethereal martyr, Welsh turns out to be a Bogart-like romantic who can’t stop feeling pain in the face of an absent God. He speaks the movie’s epitaph, “Darkness and light, strife and love: Are they the workings of one mind, the feature of the same face? O my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made, all things shining.”

Malick puts a lot of shining things on the screen: soldiers, natives, parrots, bats, rodents, visions of Eden by way of National Geographic and of the Fall by way of Alpo. Malick’s conception of consciousness distributes it among the animate and inanimate alike; almost every object is held up for rapturous contemplation. I could cite hundreds of images: A soldier in a rocking boat hovers over a letter he’s writing, which is crammed from top to bottom and side to side with script. (You don’t know the man, but you can feel in an instant his need to cram everything in.) A small, white-bearded Melanesian man strolls nonchalantly past a platoon of tensely trudging grunts who can’t believe they’re encountering this instead of a hail of Japanese bullets. Two shots bring down the first pair of soldiers to advance on the hill; a second later, the sun plays mystically over the tall, yellow grass that has swallowed their bodies. John Toll’s camera rushes in on a captured Japanese garrison: One Japanese soldier shrieks; another, skeletal, laughs and laughs; a third weeps over a dying comrade. The face of a Japanese soldier encased in earth speaks from the dead, “Are you righteous? Know that I was, too.”

Whether or not these pearllike epiphanies are strung is another matter. Malick throws out his overarching theme–is nature two-sided, at war with itself?–in the first few minutes but, for all his startling juxtapositions, he never dramatizes it with anything approaching the clarity of, say, Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989). Besides the dialogue between Welsh and Witt, The Thin Red Line’s other organizing story involves a wrenching tug of war between Nolte’s ambition-crazed Tall and Capt. Staros (Elias Koteas), who refuses an order to send his men on what will surely be a suicidal–and futile–assault on a bunker. But matters of cause and effect don’t really interest Malick. Individual acts of conscience can and do save lives, and heroism can win a war or a battle, he acknowledges. But Staros is ultimately sent packing, and Malick never bothers to trace the effect of his action on the Guadalcanal operation. In fact, the entire battle seems to take place in a crazed void. Tall quotes Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” and orders a meaningless bombardment to “buck the men up–it’ll look like the Japs are catching hell.” Soldiers shoot at hazy figures, unsure whether they’re Japanese or American. Men collide, blow themselves in half with their own mishandled grenades, stab themselves frantically with morphine needles, shove cigarettes up their noses to keep the stench of the dying and the dead at bay. A tiny bird, mortally wounded, flutters in the grass.

Malick is convincing–at times overwhelming–on the subject of chaos. It’s when he tries to ruminate on order that he gets gummed up, retreating to one of his gaseous multiple mouthpieces: “Where is it that we were together? Who is it that I lived with? Walked with? The brother. … The friend. … One mind.” I think I’d have an easier time with Malick’s metaphysical speculations if I had a sense of some concomitant geopolitical ones–central to any larger musings on forces of nature as viewed through the prism of war. Couldn’t it be that the German and Japanese fascist orders were profoundly anti-natural, and that the Allies’ cause was part of a violent but natural correction? You don’t have to buy into Spielberg’s Lincolnesque pieties in Saving Private Ryan to believe that there’s a difference between World War II and Vietnam (or, for that matter, World War II and the invasion of Grenada or our spats with Iraq). While he was at Harvard, Malick might have peeled himself off the lap of his pointy-headed mentor, Stanley Cavell, the philosopher and film theorist, and checked out a few of Michael Waltzer’s lectures on just and unjust wars. Maybe then he’d view Guadalcanal not in an absurdist vacuum (the soldiers come, they kill and are killed, they leave) but in the larger context of a war that was among the most rational (in its aims, if not its methods) fought in the last several centuries. For all his visionary filmmaking, Malick’s Zen neutrality sometimes seems like a cultivated–and pretentious–brand of fatuousness.

John Travolta’s empty nightclub impersonation of Bill Clinton in Primary Colors (1998) had one positive result: It gave him a jump-start on Jan Schlichtmann, the reckless personal injury lawyer at the center of A Civil Action. Travolta’s Schlichtmann is much more redolent of Clinton: slick and selfish and corrupt in lots of ways but basically on the side of the angels, too proud and arrogant to change tactics when all is certainly lost. Schlichtmann pursued–and more or less blew–a civil liability case against the corporate giants Beatrice and W.R. Grace over the allegedly carcinogenic water supply of Woburn, Mass. Boston writer Jonathan Harr, in the book the movie is based on, went beyond the poison in the Woburn wells to evoke (stopping just short of libel) the poison of the civil courts, where platoons of overpaid corporate lawyers can drive opponents with pockets less deep and psyches less stable into bankruptcy and hysteria.

Director Steven Zaillian’s version doesn’t capture the mounting rage that one experiences while reading Harr’s book, or even the juicy legal machinations that Francis Ford Coppola giddily manipulated in his underrated adaptation of John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997). But A Civil Action is a sturdy piece of work, an old-fashioned conversion narrative with some high-tech zip. Schlichtmann doesn’t take this “orphan” case–brought by the parents of several children who died of leukemia–because he wants to do good but because he figures that Grace and Beatrice will fork over huge sums of money to keep the parents from testifying publicly about their children’s last days. He might succeed, too, if it weren’t for Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), the Beatrice lawyer who knows how to keep Schlichtmann shadowboxing while his small firm’s financial resources dwindle to nothing.

Z aillian is at his most assured when he cuts back and forth between Facher’s Harvard Law School lectures on what not to do in court and Schlichtmann’s fumbling prosecution. The sequence has the extra dimension of good journalism: It dramatizes and comments simultaneously. Plus, it gives Duvall a splendid platform for impish understatement. (Duvall has become more fun to watch than just about anyone in movies.) Elsewhere, Zaillian takes a more surface approach, sticking to legal minutiae and rarely digging for the deeper evil. As in his Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), the outcome of every scene is predictable, but how Zaillian gets from beat to beat is surprisingly fresh. He also gets sterling bit performances from Sydney Pollack as the spookily sanguine Grace CEO, William H. Macy as Schlichtmann’s rabbity accountant, and Kathleen Quinlan as the mother of one of the victims. Quinlan knows that when you’re playing a woman who has lost a child you don’t need to emote–you reveal the emotion by trying not to emote.

To the families involved in the Woburn tragedy, the real climax of this story isn’t the downbeat ending of the book or the sleight of hand, “let’s call the Environmental Protection Agency,” upbeat ending of the movie. The climax is the publication of a book that takes the plaintiffs’ side and that remains on the best-seller list in hardcover and paperback for years. The climax is the movie starring John Travolta. Beatrice and Grace made out OK legally, but some of us will never use their products again without thinking about Travolta losing his shirt in the name of those wasted-away little kids.