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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Thin Red Line (1998)



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Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line looks like an epic war saga, but it's really a pretentious treatise on conflict in nature, with the battle at Guadalcanal as its setting. The characters deliver ponderous monologues between and sometimes during the battle scenes. They aren't realistic -- they don't feel like what men would be pontificating about in the heat of the moment. In the film's best moments, the philosophizing seems like what soldiers might have written about in their memoirs, decades later. In weaker moments, it feels like what someone with an overly dramatic imagination figures the soldiers would have been thinking. But the film is infatuated with itself and its own misperceived cleverness that it lingers endlessly on somber images and melancholy music.

So maybe realism in the monologues isn't really the point. But what is the point? They aren't poetic, and they aren't profound, either, although they sound profound. But what does all the philosophizing about war say, other than that people philosophize about war? This is, perhaps, a movie for people who like thinking person's movies but don't like to think about them. More kindly, maybe it's a thinking person's movie that leaves the thinking part wholly up to the viewer. I don't like movies that do all my thinking for me, but if a movie doesn't do any of it, what do I need it for?

Perhaps it is telling that at the Academy Awards, the film secured seven nominations and zero wins. It's as if the Academy voters did not like the film but felt obligated to admire it. I don't much like it either. Yet certainly some aspects are admirable. It has good cinematography and a few compelling dramatic scenes in the middle. The best part is Nick Nolte's performance; the worst is his character, an insultingly unrealistic caricature of military leaders. Anti-war films are more convincing if they don't skew reality to make the point.