Hart’s War took me by surprise. It’s three movies in one, one after another. My friend agreed in principle and liked the tension and surprises, but I found it to be unfocused and distracting.
R for war violence, language
Bruce Willis gives the movie star power, but Colin Farrell leads the cast as Lieutenant Hart. The movie opens on Hart’s capture by the Germans. He’s interrogated and transported to a POW camp. Three times he nearly loses his life in these opening twenty minutes. It makes for an exciting adventure, and it sets the scene for a good, tense war movie.
But Hart’s War isn’t just a war movie.
Hart is introduced to POW life in Stalag VI A (a fictitious camp, according to a former POW in the audience). Colonel McNamara (Willis) is the ranking POW. A fourth-generation West Point grad, he has no liking for this upstart lieutenant from Yale. McNamara assigns Hart to an enlisted man’s barracks, which is both intended and taken as an insult.
The enlisted men in the barracks don’t like Hart. They resent him for being placed in charge, even though he’s the newest POW. Tensions increase further when two Tuskeegee Airmen, both officers, are also assigned to Hart’s barracks. Racism outranks rank, and many of the enlisted men refuse to salute the airmen, making Hart’s life even worse.
But Hart’s War isn’t just a POW movie.
It’s a courtroom drama. One of the airmen (Vicellous Reon Shannon) is killed, and soon thereafter the barracks’ biggest racist is killed. The remaining airman (Terrence Howard) is put on trial for murder and Hart is assigned to defend him. A full hour into the film, Hart’s War finally hits its stride. Finally, I was able to say “so this is what it’s all about.”
But Hart’s War isn’t just a courtroom drama.
One coda involves an escape attempt and a second coda spins a new twist on old events. It wasn’t until the receding helicopter shot that I thought the film might actually be over. It wasn’t until the credits rolled that I was sure.
The most striking thing about Hart’s War is its lack of focus. I didn’t feel like I knew what the movie was about until the courtroom drama started taking shape. I wondered why it took a full hour to get to that point.
Did they want an excuse to show a POW transport train, some explosions, and some bloody squibs? Was it a marketing ploy to draw in as many demographics as possible? Is it an episodic tour of WWII like The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan? Was it a deliberate attempt to forge a new style of filmed storytelling, or was it a mistake?
My friend liked that a new surprise was waiting around each corner, but I tend to favor the “mistake” theory.
Well, Well, Well
The characters in Hart’s War are well formed. Hart makes for a good central figure, a stand-in for the audience. He’s bland and dazed, taking it all in. Willis, looking surprisingly gaunt, plays the tough guy we’ve seen him play before (compare McNamara to his role in The Siege).
The camp commandant, Major Visser (Marcel Iures), is a memorable figure. Like Hart, he also went to Yale. He seems bored by his job, and he takes an interest in the prisoners’ infighting. He has just enough menace that his interest and friendliness is suspect.
I particularly liked the Tuskeegee airmen, and that the movie didn’t try to whitewash history. WWII was a segregated war, and racism was strong in the U.S. And although the two African-American characters are almost objects, mere plot devices, Shannon and Howard’s portrayal of the separation, tension, and fear they feel brings them to life.
Finally, Hart’s War is well polished. The CG dogfights are impressive. The snowy 1944 winter looks beautiful on film. The movie is well photographed, well paced, and well edited.
Forewarned is Forearmed
But can good filmmaking make up for a scattered script?
That depends on your point of view. Hart’s War could be an average movie, or it could be very good. Maybe being forewarned will let you appreciate it better than I did.