Director: Gregory Hoblit
Cast: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Dashon Howard, Cole Hauser, Marcel Iures, Linus Roache, Vicellous Reon Shannon
MPAA Rating: (for some strong war violence and language)
Running Time: 2:05
Release Date: 2/15/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
A minor trend in war films has started to appear. A few only have the outward appearance of a war movie; at heart, they are only mindless, jingoistic action movies. That’s a major reason why Hart’s War is so refreshing. Here’s a movie with no false notions—no aimless ambition to be more than it actually is. This is a murder mystery set in a POW camp in the final months of the war in Europe during World War II. The stage is set with simple but assured detail. The inner workings of the camp are not thoroughly examined, but they are shown in motion as the story unfolds. The characters are present only to serve the purpose of the mystery, but their interactions are fascinating. Motive is in great supply, and each individual or group that has it provides one more piece to the ultimate puzzle. The war itself is merely the backdrop, and it stays as such until the conclusion, when the screenplay tricks us into thinking that the war was the focus of the entire film. That the shift works until later scrutiny is an indication of how engrossing the story is.
Lt. Thomas Hart (Colin Farrell), the son of a Senator, has a desk job at army headquarters, safe from the carnage on the frontlines. During a routine transport, he is captured by German soldiers, interrogated until he reveals the location of the base, and sent to a POW camp. The camp is run by Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures), a veteran of the First World War and an academic who seems to have found himself in this position because of his ability to command fear and a certain amount of respect. The American soldiers are held in barracks, and the structure of the prison retains the organization of army ranks. The prisoners are led by the highest-ranking officer Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), a soldier with a long military history in his family. Hart is placed in a barrack full of enlisted men along with two other officers Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Dashon Howard) and Lt. Lamar Archer (Vicellous Reon Shannon), both African-American and both ridiculed by Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser). Archer is soon executed after a weapon is planted under his cot, and Bedford is found murdered soon after, apparently at the hands of Scott, who was found standing over the body.
From here on, the story centers on Scott’s court martial, presided over by McNamara with Hart defending the accused and the only lawyer in camp prosecuting. The focus isn’t the trial itself but the backdoor dealings and politics of the camp. At first glance, the camp and its occupants seem like caricatures. The Americans have a hidden radio and a few secret passageways, but it becomes readily apparent that there’s a system at work. The trial brings out even more information—guards dealing with prisoners, a munitions plant disguised as a shoe factory, and the war moving ever closer and deeper into the heart of Germany. Most importantly we see a three-way power struggle begin to unfold between Hart, Visser, and McNamara. After failing to maintain his silence in interrogation, he takes the court martial as a chance to prove his honor by seeking justice for Scott. Visser is steadfast on maintaining order and even goes as far as to help Hart by giving him a manual for court martial proceedings. McNamara’s agenda is shrouded somewhere in his actions during the trial and what’s going on behind everyone’s backs during it.
As McNamara, Bruce Willis’ stoic, hard-as-nails persona fits perfectly. His eyes are ever set—never wandering—appearing to see something that no one else can. He always seems to be thinking, planning, scheming. Nothing escapes this man. Marcel Iures at first resembles a stereotypical Nazi officer. Cold, calculating, speaking in an almost cartoonish accent, Visser at first shows no depth whatsoever. Then in a few key dialogue exchanges, helped much by Iures’ skilled character work, he slowly develops. This is a man with a past and a twisted, but still logical, way of thinking. His son died in the war; he sees it as a sort of karmic retribution for the killing he did in the First World War. "They had fathers, too," he muses to Hart during a conversation where they show more similarities in experience and cause than we would have first imagined. As the title suggests, though, this is Hart’s tale, and as the privileged former paper-pusher driven by the guilt of collaborating with the enemy, Colin Farrell makes the gradual transformation completely believable.
Hart’s War is a compact story told with focus and assurance by director Gregory Hoblit. The finale indulges in some oddly placed patriotic fervor and asks us to overlook a serious act of treachery to get there, but by the time it comes around, we’re already too invested in the story to care. It’s intelligent, straightforward, and engrossing entertainment.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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