A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)


The Thin Red Line had been much anticipated because it was Malick's first film as director in 20 years, following the much-praised features Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). But it had the misfortune to come out only a few months after Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, whose portrayal of the actuality of combat on D-Day and after was hailed as landmark filmmaking. There are those who think more highly of Malick's film: Spielberg's movie, they argue, is weakened by his desire to celebrate the courage of those who fought in World War II, resulting in the gratuitous frame-story about the aging Ryan's return to the graveyard in Normandy, as well as in some conventional war-movie plotting. Malick's movie is anything but conventional: the well-shot (by John Toll) and -edited (by Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, and Billy Weber) combat scenes are accompanied by a meditative, metaphysics-heavy commentary supposedly voiced by the combatants themselves. To my mind, this mixture of war-movie action and reflective voiceover doesn't work. For one thing, much of what's said in the commentary sounds like the kind of poetry I used to write in college. Malick certainly makes his point about the existential absurdity of war, but he makes it over and over and over, to the expense of developing human characters. Sean Penn, who gets top billing, seems to have been designed to be the movie's central consciousness, but much of that function in the story got lost in the editing: The original cut of the film was five hours long, so it had to be reduced to its current three-hour run time, along with much of the substance of Nick Nolte's blustering colonel, whose motivations are simply alluded to in the voiceover and some of his dialogue. The editing also eliminated the performances of such major film actors as Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, and Mickey Rourke, while for some reason retaining the rather pointless cameos by George Clooney and John Travolta. The movie was nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, but received none. It may, however, have siphoned away some votes from Saving Private Ryan, allowing Shakespeare in Love (John Madden, 1989) to emerge as the surprise and still very controversial best picture winner.