The screenplay by Malick, who also directs the movie, is meditative and vague. The main story follows Charlie Companie, an infantry unit, as it tries to capture an island in the Pacific from the Japanese. A few soldiers are highlighted and characterised: the quiet, meditative Witt, the explosive Colonel Tall, the isolated Sgt. Welsh, and the empathic Captain Staros. They are futher developped through their meditations, their thoughts and their memories, told through flashbacks. The main attack on the Japanese is not developed as in other war movies, however, for the movie's emphasis is on these meditations and thoughts, and every aspect of human life, from love to death to friendship and conflict is developed through them.
The acting is top-notch. Sean Penn, Nick Nolte and James Caviezel take the top honors with their magnificent performances. Penn and Caviezel are loners, meditative, men of few words. However, Caviezel's character is an optimist and is empathic with other soldiers; Penn's is isolated and bitter, but shows a few rays of emotion until the end. Nolte is hard and rough as the embittered Colonel Tall, who wants to win this war with honor and glory by any means necessary, up to and including the death of every man in the unit. The secondary roles are also played by excellent actors, and, on the whole, the ensemble cast is exemplary.
Malick's direction is exemplary too. The director shows that he hasn't lost his knack for beautiful visuals, and along with cinematographer John Toll's sumptuous work, this is one of the most lavishly shot war films out there. Also worthy of mention is the editing, which is quite simply unique. Often, scenes of horrific violence, pain, and death are interwined with tranquil shots of sun streaming through the thick jungle canopy, and scenes of quiet calm in the "human" world are fragmented by shots of nature dying. Furthermore, flashbacks are numerous, and each illustrates a soldier's longings or memories without the need for words. However, all this does not mean that the war scenes are mild, because some of the battle scenes in this film very nearly approach the viscerality of the D-Day sequence in Spielberg's film. Finally, Hans Zimmer's stirring score is also worthy of mention, and it's ironic that this same music accompanies the trailer for that lesser World War II movie, Pearl Harbor.
Terrence Malick has created a quite unique war film. It's richer, more thematically complex, and more restrained than most movies. There are no tearful goodbies between comrades, no stirring, patriotic monologues between commanders, because none are needed. The visuals and the horrors of war tell all that needs to be told about the subject. And that should be reason to see this movie enough.
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