The Thin Red Line
Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, Jim Caviezel, Ben Chaplin, George Clooney, John Cusack, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Nick Nolte
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 8 Jan 1999 (General release); 1998)
Terrence Malick is the Axl Rose for people who use terms like “visual poetry” on a regular basis.
In the 1970s, Malick directed Badlands and Days of Heaven, two beautiful films that won over critics and art film lovers, if not the general public. After the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick took a two-decade hiatus from filmmaking, ending with his announcement that he would be adapting James Jones’ novel The Thin Red Line to the big screen.
Unfortunately, like Chinese Democracy, or The Phantom Menace, or just about every other return of a cultural hero to the main stage, The Thin Red Line did not meet the highest hopes audiences had set for it. The film is very good, and it made plain that Malick still had his game from 20 years back. The film’s problems, in fact, seem to stem from the same quality that makes the film admirable: Malick’s bold ambition. Why would a filmmaker with a penchant for thoroughly visual and pastoral studies of American lives attempt to adapt a novel with about a dozen main characters fighting the Battle of Guadalcanal? Perhaps it was hubris, or a bar bet, but whatever the cause, Malick managed to make a film out of it that is sometimes frustrating, sometimes thrilling, and sometimes just plain boring. But the film is also consistently gorgeous and, even when not all that enjoyable, thoroughly rich and impressive.
The contradiction of Malick’s visual style and the multi-character war narrative inform many of the salient aspects of The Thin Red Line. Malick clearly did not have a general audience in mind for this film (or, if he did, he clearly does not understand people), but The Thin Red Line has the kind of all-star cast that is designed for box office success and absolutely belies the art house nature of the film. However, that art house nature becomes clear in the film’s first moment, when an alligator slides into murky waters to the sound of a swelling chord on an organ. The movie continues with thoughtful visual beauty for about the first hour.
Once the battle that is the film’s narrative focal point gains momentum, the visuals become less compelling (how many times must filmgoers be subjected to gunfights in slow motion with an orchestra playing sorrowfully in the background? By 1999, shouldn’t filmmakers have devised a new, better way to make viewers feel the tragedy of war?). However, the characters gain depth as the battle narrative unfolds. Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, James Caviezel, and Sean Penn all play compelling characters whose competing philosophies on the nature of war, self, and mortality give the narrative heft and make the film’s shift in tone forgivable. The love story of Private Bell (played by Ben Chaplin), however, is remarkably annoying. The incessant flashbacks to he and his wife cuddling and the melodramatic end to his story recall the most painfully maudlin moments of From Here to Eternity.
About two hours into The Thin Red Line, the battle narrative reaches what seems like a conclusion, but the film continues for another 45 minutes. Some of the stunning visuals return during this time, and the stories of several characters gain resolution, but this final third of the movie feels like an epilogue, as if the dual needs for narrative and filmic resolution were too much for one ending.
Even as the film tests one’s patience, though, it creates the desire to spend more time with it. The Thin Red Line is a complicated, even messy, film that undoubtedly frustrated moviegoers expecting another Saving Private Ryan. But for those viewers up for the challenge—the kind who think a befuddling final image is good cause to see a movie all over from the beginning—The Thin Red Line is rich with opportunities for rediscovery and revelation. Many of the best movies of 1999 supplied audiences with rich visual fun. Maybe it’s not so bad that Terrence Malick made one visual experience that demanded something in return. David Camak Pratt
Blast from the Past
Brendan Fraser, Alicia Silverstone, Christopher Walken, Sissy Spacek, Dave Foley
(New Line Cinema; US theatrical: 27 Jan 1999; 1999)
It is the tendency of fans everywhere to ascribe profound meaning to the things they love, even (or especially) if that meaning isn’t evident to the unbiased observer. After all, who hasn’t felt a mounting frustration when trying to describe just what makes that book / film / song / painting so amazing? If only they could only see it like I do, you think, they would understand how good it really is.
When I tell people that Blast from the Past is one of my favorite films, I’m usually rewarded with a smirk. When I try to explain why, the smirk usually grows into a full-fledged grin. But the film has depth, goddammit, and until I can bring more people around to my point of view I’m going to keep on yapping away about it, because that’s what fans do.
The film manages the rather neat trick of semi-plausibly depositing a child of the ‘50s into ‘90s Los Angeles: during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Calvin Webber (Christopher Walken) hustles his pregnant wife Helen (Sissy Spacek) down into their ingenuously-designed bomb shelter in anticipation of the coming nuclear apocalypse. When a fighter jet crashes into their house, their worst fears are confirmed, and Calvin seals up the bomb shelter—activating a complex system of locks that will keep them in (and the presumably mutated holocaust survivors out) for the next 35 years. They occupy their time by raising their son Adam (Brendan Fraser), until the day that he must inevitably leave—to find his way in the world, and to meet the girl (Alicia Silverstone).
The film is commonly read as a nostalgic look back at the 1950s, and indeed Adam spends much of the film being charmingly quaint. But to take it only at that level is to miss how dark (and interesting) the film truly is, and what vision of the 1950s it really portrays.
First of all, the only characters from the film who were actually alive during the ‘50s—Calvin and Helen Webber—have serious problems. Calvin is well-meaning but eccentric, and Helen, trapped with him in their thousand-square-foot prison, takes to drinking to pass the time. But he’s so perpetually clueless that in the 35 years they live in the bomb shelter he never realizes she’s become a chronic alcoholic. They might be a typical couple for the era, but they’re certainly not a perfect one.
That’s a moot point, though, because Adam is charming not because he grew up in 1950s America but because he didn’t. He grew up in a bomb shelter, an entirely artificial world that had the lovable aspects of the ‘50s (the Perry Como, The Honeymooners) and none of the many things that blighted the era (McCarthyism, racism and segregation, or the Korean War). The film plays off our nostalgia for the ‘50s, sure, but it also satirizes those same feelings of nostalgia by showing how they have little to no basis in reality. Adam isn’t just unprepared for life in the ‘90s—he’s unprepared for life. He’s been raised like Beaver Cleaver, and as a consequence he has profound trouble interacting with society.
And therein lies the beauty of the film. Adam is damaged because of his upbringing, and so too is Eve, in her way—she’s angry, and cynical, and has trouble with men. The two fall in love not because of their backgrounds but despite them; what Blast from the Past says is that broken people have the capacity to mend one another. That what matters is not where we are from but instead who we choose to be with.
Or maybe I’m just reading too much into things. But even if none of that is right then it’s still a damn likeable film, with a good cast and funny jokes and a plot where everything falls nicely into place. So wipe that smirk off your face. Kyle Deas