Screenplay : Billy Ray and Terry George (based on the novel by John Katzenbach)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Bruce Willis (Col. William McNamara), Colin Farrell (Lt. Tommy Hart), Terrence Dashon Howard (Lt. Lincoln Scott), Vicellous Reon Shannon (Lamar Archer), Cole Hauser (Bedford), Rick Ravanello (Maj. Joe Clary), Marcel Iures (SS Maj. Wilhelm Visser)
Hart's War is an odd mish-mash, pursuing different ends at different times until, by the end of the film, we're not sure what it was about or how we should feel about what it's saying. Starting off as a straightforward World War II movie, it shifts into prison mode when the setting moves to a German prisoner-of-war camp, then it ventures deep into 1940s-era social-problem territory as it explores racism in the military, develops a murder-mystery plot, settles down into a routine courtroom drama, and finally ends on a good old-fashioned patriotic call to the virtues of honor, even in the face of death.
Although Bruce Willis is given top billing, the titular character, fresh-faced Lt. Tommy Hart, is played by Colin Farrell (Tigerland), and the film is largely his story. A second-year law student at Princeton and the privileged son of a senator, when World War II broke out, Hart was secured in an officer's position and guaranteed that he would never see combat. Unfortunately, he happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when driving a fellow officer to another camp—ambushed by Germans, he is taken prisoner, tortured and interrogated, and eventually sent to a frozen prisoner-of-war camp led by the charmingly vile Maj. Wilhelm Visser (Marcel Iures), a virtual posterboy for cultured Nazi sadism.
In the stalag, Hart quickly learns that Col. William McNamara (Willis), a fourth-generation West Point graduate who is so tough that he endured a month of torture without ever cracking, is the ranking officer among the prisoners. At this point, Hart's War seems to be a straightforward war movie, but then two African-American pilots are brought into the camp, and everything changes.
The two pilots, Lincoln Scott (Terrence Dashon Howard) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Reon Shannon), find themselves systematically discriminated against, particularly by a soldier named Bedford (Cole Hauser). So, when Bedford is found dead outside late one night, his neck snapped, with Scott standing over his body, it seems safe to assume that the black man did it out of anger toward Bedford's cruel prejudice.
McNamara insists that there be a trial to stay in accord with the Geneva Convention, and he appoints Hart to defend Scott. Hart immediately senses that forces are aligning against him, although one of the biggest questions is whether or not McNamara is on his side or not. The tension surrounding the murder case is well-developed, but it is used largely for soap-box purposes, to give character after character self-important speeches that spell out the movie's message: Racism is bad.
Directed by Gregory Hoblit (Frequency) and photographed in various shades of dull greens and icy grays by Alar Kivilo (who made frozen land speak volumes in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan), Hart's War has several affecting moments, particularly in the strange relationships between the captors and the prisoners. Marcel Iures cuts a striking figure as Visser, a character who is strangely compelling because we want to immediately associate him with abject evil even though he constantly thwarts such associations with his charms, graces, and intelligence. He and Willis have several good moments together, as Willis, in full clenched-jaw and burning-eyes mode, simply oozes with unsubtle American pride and staunchness, which makes for an intriguing contrast to Iures' suave European manners.
Yet, for all its intrigue, Hart's War is ultimately too earnest in its didacticism to truly affect us; it wears its liberal-hearted pretensions too openly on its sleeve. The intention is right, but it bogs itself down with an insistent message that has been made better, in both subtle and unsubtle ways, by too many movies before it. Granted, there are a few twists at the end that almost suggest that the whole social-problem angle was really just a diversion—that, in the end, there were larger forces at work and that one of the virtues of American pride is the willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good—but by then the movie has largely lost us.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick