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Mission Accomplished?

Writer-director Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, the filmmaker's adaptation of James Jones's 1962 bestseller about the World War II battle for Guadalcanal, arrives in theaters with an almost unbearable weight of expectation.

After graduating in the first class at AFI's Advanced Film Studies program and working briefly as a screenwriter, Malick directed two hugely respected films--Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven(1978)--and then seemed to disappear for twenty years before re-emerging for this new project. (Like clockwork, articles asking "Where the hell is Terry Malick?" popped up every few years in film magazines.) His absence only magnified his reputation, so it's not surprising that after working with relative unknowns (at the time) Sissy Spacek, Richard Gere and Sam Shepard in his first two films, he has now been able to attract the participation of genuine stars such as Sean Penn, John Travolta, George Clooney, Nick Nolte, John Cusack and Woody Harrelson.

For better or worse, the film also arrives in the wake of Steven Spielberg's critical and commercial blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, with which it shares surface similarities. Rest assured that those similarities do not extend far beneath the surface. It is hard to imagine two filmmakers with more disparate sensibilities than Malick and Spielberg. Back in the Seventies, the pair attracted attention almost simultaneously, with estimable films that, again, were at first glance strikingly similar.

Malick, older by five years, made Badlands, a couple-on-the-run film, a year earlier than Spielberg's Sugarland Express (1974). While the stories had common elements, the difference in tone between the two pictures was just as striking as the difference between The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan. Despite being narrated by one of its protagonists, Badlands is stark, cold and ironic, observing its characters from a distance, while Spielberg's is a crowd-pleaser--light, emotionally engaging and accessible.

The contrast is valuable not simply for what it reveals about the filmmakers in particular; without much distortion, it can also be used as a metaphor for the battling forces that made the Seventies the richest decade in American cinema since the Thirties. On the one hand there was Malick, who told stories in new ways that suggested a faith in the audience's intelligence. On the other there was Spielberg, who also told stories in new ways--remember how innovative Jaws seemed in 1975?--but whose overwhelming eagerness to please suggested a lack of faith in the audience and, perhaps, in his own talents. (To this day, Spielberg's greatest fault is his insecurity. Like House Republicans, he can't resist self-defeating overkill. Until Schindler's List [1993], he never saw a lily he didn't want to gild. And even in that film, he broke down near the end and pulled out precisely the sort of aesthetic sledgehammer he had so admirably eschewed for three hours.)

But the battle for the soul of American cinema wasn't merely aesthetic. Questions of art and style were--and continue to be--inextricable from issues of technology and commerce. In terms of art and style, Malick was the more adventuresome, progressive figure. But on the latter front, Spielberg was the poster boy for the future, while Malick was an anachronism, washed away by a tsunami of new, more broadly effective modes of production and distribution.

We all know which side won.
It's not that Spielberg is a less talented filmmaker or even less of an artist. He remains brilliant and dazzling, one of the greatest natural-born filmmakers in a century of cinema. In fact, his talent is so wide-ranging that there are far more projects for which he makes sense than Malick.

But now, as 25 years ago, Malick has a more complex approach to the world and to storytelling. He walks a thin line that separates complexity from confusion, subtlety from opacity, and within The Thin Red Line, this other line nearly disappears. Make no mistake: This is not your father's Thin Red Line--which does, in fact, exist. In 1964, director Andrew Marton--best known for directing the chariot sequence in Ben-Hur--made an awkward and entirely conventional film version of the Jones book, with Jack Warden in the role now filled by Sean Penn. (How times and styles have changed!) It's not a very good film, condensing Jones's many plot threads into one. (The new videotape reissue makes it even worse: Apparently the masterminds at Simitar Video unsqueezed the CinemaScope image twice, making the actors look squat and fat--except when they lie down and suddenly become long-limbed and emaciated.) Nor is this Saving Private Ryan 2: Meanwhile, back in the Pacific...

If it were not for the fact that the entire movie takes place among soldiers before, during and after Guadalcanal, it would be tempting to say that this is not a war film at all but rather a meditation on the nature of life, God and mortality. In effect, it is both, with precisely such a meditation set within the milieu of war, where these concerns are distilled to a blinding, white-hot intensity.

It's difficult to summarize the film's plot or even its underlying themes. In terms of the "right way" to do things--that is, in film-school terms--The Thin Red Line is a total mess. When I complained after a first viewing that it had no narrative structure to speak of, a colleague protested that, disregarding a ten-minute prologue, it had a classic three-act structure: the big battle, the recuperation after the battle, and the final confrontation. While my friend is in some sense correct, he stretches the meaning of act, given that these three "acts" consume 111 minutes, 22 minutes and 19 minutes, respectively.

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