Shades of gray
Hart’s War is a welcome alternative to the contemporary war film
Discard what the MGM flacks want you to think Hart’s War is all about. From the poster and the trailer, one would think that the flick was all about Bruce Willis leading some blockbuster Great Escape from Stalag 17. Think more along the lines of a POW-camp-based A Few Good Men and you’re closer to home. Hell, despite his squinty-eyed mug plastered across the poster and taking up every frame of the trailer, Willis isn’t even Hart.
The Hart at war here is Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), pulled by the Army from his second year of law school at Yale and utilizing his favorite-son status comfortably ensconced miles from the front at the tail end of WWII. Unfortunately, his sheltered background fails him when he finds himself driving into a German ambush while larking about in a Jeep and is literally thrown headfirst into the cold, harsh and unforgiving realities of war. After a brief session of “name, rank, and serial number” with an interrogation officer, he is sent packing to a POW camp bulging at the seams with seasoned soldiers, trailing shame like toilet paper from the heel of his oversized shoes.
Snubbed by ranking Yank Colonel McNamara (Willis) and his fellow officers and resented by the enlisted internees he’s forced to bunk with, Hart finds himself low man on the totem pole—until the arrival of a pair of downed black airmen, who, despite being officers (of the Tuskegee school), also are forced to bunk with the grunts.
Their introduction lights a fuse of bigotry among the enlisted men, a sparking thread of hatred that trails through a chain of events that ultimately explodes with the murder of a racist sergeant—with one of the blacks set to take the fall.
Here is where Hart’s War sets the table for a game of chess. Steely-eye to steely-eye, McNamara and camp Commandant Col. Visser (Marcel Iures) face each other across the barbed-wire board, both seemingly ready to use the young lieutenant as a pawn while a trial is set up to court martial the airman. As the courtroom melodrama proceeds, Hart begins to unravel the tangled thread that is being played in this cat-and-mouse game and is forced to come to terms with the eternal conflict between the individual and the ultimate sacrifice for the common good.
Out of place in the current rash of war flicks dominated by in-your-face bombastic pyrotechnics, slow-motion gouts of gore and rah-rah jingoism, Hart’s War is a throwback to the old school. It’s a methodically paced examination of honor and obligation that inverts and redeems the clichés of such camp dross as Hogan’s Heroes by looking back through eyes that have witnessed the events that have changed society since.
Although interspersed with brief moments of droll humor (including an amusingly anachronistic dig at George WWIII), this movie isn’t afraid to question the ultimate hypocrisy behind the Good War, in that while the Third Reich gave a face to the ultimate evil, the “greatest generation” refused to face the fact that in effect, it was on the same path itself, the irony of which is emphasized by the film’s airmen hailing from Tuskegee. That, of course, was the site of the infamous government-run experiment—which “operated” for 40 years between 1932 and 1972—that left 399 itinerant black men to unknowingly suffer the late stages of syphilis, the only useful knowledge to be found during their autopsies. Call for Dr. Mengele.
Despite being set entirely in the eye-searing blasted heath of Belgian winter, Hart’s War is a welcome relief from the world of the contemporary war film, in that it doesn’t deign to condescend to its perceived audience, rejecting the typical cardboard shooting ducks of norm to offer up a gallery of more ambiguously conflicted characters, a thoughtful study in shades of gray.