Missing in Action

'Hart's War' fights the good fight but doesn't quite win

February 15, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It's bracing - especially now - to see a picture like Hart's War, which touches on the ethical quandaries underlying the waging of a just war.

But it only touches on them.

Hart's War tests how long a movie can leave viewers in limbo, and how many tricks it takes to pull them out of it. The picture fails on both counts, and ends on a jarring note of uplift. But it's absorbing and occasionally stirring right up to the final celebration of honor - as well as truth, justice and the American way.

Set in a German POW camp during World War II, the ironically titled Hart's War is named for Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell), a Yale law student in civilian life and a U.S. senator's son who isn't supposed to see combat. The film kicks into gear when the Germans ambush, torture and imprison him.

The top American officer at the POW camp, Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), pointedly assigns him a place in an enlisted man's bunk. When a murder threatens to disrupt McNamara's organization, Hart is ordered to defend a black flier, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard), against the charge of killing a vicious racist, Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser). If Scott did commit the murder, he had good reason - Bedford framed the only other black flier in the camp, and the Germans swiftly executed him.

Did Hart crack when the Germans first captured him? Is McNamara punishing him for it - or just for not coming clean about it? And why is McNamara so tight-lipped toward the accused killer, and so cagey about what he thinks of him? Is he merely a more polite racist than Bedford was?

Whether in a precinct, a barracks or a firehouse, Gregory Hoblit (who directed Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue before turning to features with such movies as Primal Fear and Frequency) knows how to depict the charged and intricate bonds among servicemen that require newcomers to be cautious - and that cause audiences to jump every time the novices stumble. The way screenwriters Billy Ray and Terry George have adapted John Katzenbach's 1999 thriller, the movie revels in the murk of hidden schemes and obscure motives.

Bedford, the camp scrounger, brings Hart a badly needed set of boots. But even before Bedford proves to be a racist, we wonder what price he will exact for the footwear. The movie is grayish blue and dirty-snow white, and this lowering atmosphere (established by Hoblit, cinematographer Alar Kivilo and production designer Lilly Kilvert) suits our depressed expectations of the characters. The exception is the German commandant, Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures), who turns out to be a fellow Yale man with a love for Mark Twain and jazz.

Unfortunately, to paraphrase that great American Ben Franklin, the ingredients of Hart's War fail to hang together - and thus all hang separately.

McNamara remains a dramatic conundrum until the curtain. If Willis is as good as any actor alive at playing things close to the vest and still making them dynamic, even he begins to despair of suggesting a clear and compelling point of view. Farrell's all-too-callow Hart plays out his drama of conscience in a vacuum; Iures' humane commandant Visser is less a sounding board for Hart than a helpmate. (Visser lends the lad a copy of the Americans' court-martial code, circa 1928). And Howard's alleged murderer, Scott, is reduced to arias of outrage in which he talks about Germans in American POW camps being able to enter public places denied to black U.S. servicemen.

The moviemakers force connections between the characters in the final shots, when they compete to see who can be the most manly, soldierly and worthy of glory.

Any hope of a fourth-quarter rush of suspense-film adrenaline dies with a sweeping revelation that arrives without the requisite preparation. Amazingly, the trailer gives it away; let's just say a film that hooks us with cynical or ambiguous elements akin to those in Stalag 17 or The Bridge on the River Kwai tries to detour abruptly into The Great Escape.

In the end, it's similar - and comparable - to none of those films. Hart's War could have been a contender, but it lacks the courage of its own ambivalence.

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