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'Hart's War'

'Hart's War' sees the lies behind the glory

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Lt. Thomas Hart has spent most of World War II out of harm's way. He has been working behind the lines in a post at a commandeered chateau, where the richly paneled walls and shelves full of books represent culture and civilization.

 
 
'Hart's War'

RATING: R for some strong war violence and language.

STARRING: Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell.

DIRECTOR: Gregory Hoblit.

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/
hartswar

CRITIC'S CALL:

   
 

We see a room of similar apparent refinement later in the film. It is the office of Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures), the sinuously lethal commandant of a German prisoner-of-war camp.

The phrase "civilized warfare" is among the most hideous of oxymorons, but it is not the only lie that Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell) discovers in director Gregory Hoblit's thoughtful war film.

Hart literally comes face to face with the reality of warfare almost immediately upon encountering the first of many deceptions -- two German soldiers in disguise who ambush him and a comrade.

Hart is captured, mistreated by a German interrogator and shipped to Visser's POW camp, where the tight-lipped ranking American prisoner, Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), assigns him to an enlisted-man's barracks because of overcrowding. But the schnitzel really hits the fan when two black lieutenants, Scott (Terrence Howard) and Archer (Vicellous Shannon), members of the Tuskegee Airmen, arrive in camp and are assigned to Hart's barracks.

They are greeted with distaste by the white soldiers, who are their subordinates by rank, and especially by the camp wheeler-dealer, Staff Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), who has no compunction about addressing them with racial slurs. Inevitably, Scott winds up on trial for his life in a court-martial that seems to be stacked against him. Hart, a former law student, is assigned to defend him.

The level of deception goes deeper than it seems. Hart is himself guilty of prevaricating. Certainly, the prisoners betray the ideal of sticking together in the face of a common enemy. There's every reason to believe Scott has been framed. As for McNamara, he just watches events unfold with a squint and a stone face, issuing terse comments and orders and offering few clues to what he might be thinking -- or doing.

While the movie provides several adrenaline jolts of battle action, director Hoblit keeps the focus on the characters. His taut, low-key approach allows the scenario to unfold with believable naturalness, allowing us to see the men as interestingly and realistically flawed. Ultimately, he and screenwriters Billy Ray and Terry George declare honor and courage and duty to be the constants that triumph amid the desecrations of war.

How that plays out leads to the resolution of the film, where more than a few surprises -- certainly a few too many for credibility's sake -- play out, leading to some confusion. Scott, while a realist, turns out to be a bit too noble in the end. Why, aside from political correctness, should he be the only character without seeming flaws?

Hoblit, a veteran of the raw and realistic TV cop dramas "Hill Street Blues" and "NYPD Blue," knows how to get good performances from his actors. Farrell lives up to the promise showed in his debut film, the little-seen "Tigerland," while Willis gives McNamara an air of steely-eyed, soft-spoken authority.

The director also offers striking images of the beauty of nature scarred by a jumble of bodies or by captured men forced to march through a snowstorm in the woods that looks almost angelically pretty -- just another deadly illusion.

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