Hart’s War (2002)

Directed by Gregory Hoblit

A series of war movies have been released in 2002 and if they do nothing else they show us just how many wars there have been to choose from for setting this type of movie. Rather depressing when you think of it.

Among these films, there is Hart’s War, a good but certainly not great film, which differs somewhat by being less of an action movie and more of a mystery-drama. But it does have its action and I think it is here where the movie gets into some trouble.

A young lieutenant (Colin Farrell) offers to drive a higher ranking officer. En route, they are stopped by enemy soldiers disguised as Americans. His passenger is shot and the young officer is captured. He is sent to a POW camp where he finds himself pulled into the intrigues of the camp, including defending a African-American officer who has been accused of murder. (The Nazi commander of the camp allows the prisoners to put on a trial.)

But there is a great deal more going on and this is the film’s drama – the mysterious goings-on behind the scenes, the drama behind the surface drama.

The way the movie unfolds, the second half of the film is very engaging. The first half, however, drags because it doesn’t quite engage you. It tries but it’s the attempts that cause it to fall short. One of the essential elements of the film is the character of the young lieutenant – a kind of protected son of a powerful man. He is a “callow youth.” He really has no genuine experience of the war, of what soldiers endure, of what courage and honour are.

Unfortunately, these key elements aren’t shown to us. We’re simply told through the dialogue of others, at least for the most part. We’re not shown his character (although there seem to have been a few attempts.) Without this visceral sense (provided by showing character through action) we never get a sense for him. We never empathize one way or another. By wanting to get to the action and the heart of the story quickly, the movie breezes past these essential components.

So in the film’s first half, as we’re given plenty of action and so on, we’re somehow distanced from everything because we’re not quite engaged by the character. In fact, the movie overall strikes the semblance of a story (and one we’re familiar with from similar older films like The Great Escape) but doesn’t quite engage us the way they do. Even Bruce Willis’ character (Col. McNamara) lacks a great deal of character dimension. He’s more a type than a person. As is the Nazi commander and so on. (Although the Nazi commander is probably the closest the film comes to a three dimensional character.)

This character dimension is lost by the anxiety over slowing the movie down. But by keeping the pace quick, getting to action as fast as possible, and refusing to linger for character depth, the film ultimately feels like icing with no cake. It’s beautifully shot, well assembled from a craftsmanship perspective, but feels somewhat hollow.

This is a movie that requires some breathing room to get the characters better established, better fleshed out. There really are quite a few good elements; the potential is there for a great story (even if it’s a bit of a retread). It may be a that one of the problems the film has is too many good elements – it tries to cover a lot of ground (racism, honour, mystery, action etc.) It’s only in the last part of the movie that it finally settles on the kind of movie it wants to be.

Still, it does enough right to be worth at least one viewing. The DVD is excellent from both the video and audio viewpoints, and the special features are adequate. (The commentary is good as it also highlights some of the films false steps and how the filmmakers approached them. However, the Bruce Willis part of the commentary is idiotic – not what he says but the fact that it was clearly recorded at a different time in a different location. His comments are largely single words like “Yeah,” and are dropped in higgledy-piggledy. Why they included them is beyond me.)

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