Hart's War

2001, Movie, R, 125 mins


Based on John Katzenbach's novel, which was inspired by his father's experiences in a German P.O.W. camp, this uneven mix of courtroom theatrics and WWII drama wears its high-mindedness like a purple heart. December 1944: Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), the coddled son of an influential senator, has spent the war in a comfortable command center, far from the bloody front. All that changes when he's captured during a routine assignment, brutally interrogated and shipped off to a harsh P.O.W. camp. The camp's ranking Allied officer, Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), takes a dislike to Hart, quartering him with enlisted men rather than officers and later assigning him the impossible task of protecting two black air force officers, Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lt. Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon), from the racism of their fellow soldiers. Within days, Archer is set up by barracks schemer Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), who plants a homemade weapon in Archer's bed and then tips off the guards. Archer is summarily executed. When Bedford is murdered, suspicion naturally falls on Scott, who's discovered near the body. Rather than turn Scott over to the guards, McNamara persuades the camp's commandant, Yale-educated Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures), to permit a court martial. But he makes Hart Scott's attorney, even though Hart is only a second-year law student and opposing counsel is a full-fledged lawyer. It's clear that McNamara is up to something, but what? This sober film is clearly meant to be a study in shades of grey, its moral ambiguity carried through in the bleak color scheme. Hart's war is a personal one, less against the Nazis than his own imperfections: He breaks under torture, can't protect the Tuskegee Airmen and accepts help from the commandant because he's too focused on winning his case to realize that the Devil's aid always comes at a price. But while it fuses elements of military trial pictures like A FEW GOOD MEN (1992) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954) with P.O.W. camp pictures like STALAG 17 (1953) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), the film never really engages; it always feels as though it's about to take off, only to sputter to yet another halt for a stagy monologue articulating the story's underlying themes. And despite its admirable sobriety for most of its running time, the film's climax is a parade of ludicrous clichés, beginning with a ridiculous courtroom declaration and culminating in an act of predictable self-sacrifice. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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