“The Thin Red Line” is a glaring example of Hollywood deciding that they’d rather be artists than entertainers. From a technical standpoint, the film is grand. The cinematography is eloquent enough that I actually noticed that cinematography. The score, the set pieces and most of the performances are all top notch. None of those things, though, made this movie watchable. The second most striking thing about this film (because, seriously – the cinematography) is the fact that someone managed to make a movie about the fight for Guadalcanal so mind-numbingly boring.
The story centers around Jim Caviezel, an AWOL soldier who is picked up and forced back into service due to manpower shortages during the buildup to the invasion of Guadalcanal. Through his eyes and the eyes of those around him, we see the battle unfold and the devastation – both physical and psychic – that war wreaks upon a man. We see heroes and cowards and people who just can’t handle it and are forced into the shoes of each. We see compassion and camaraderie right alongside man’s inhumanity to man.
For all of the things that the film gets right, it’s clearly made by someone with little to no regard for the military. Soldiers are either soulless psychopaths or snap under the pressure because they’re real human beings. Nick Nolte is probably the one thing they got right. He’s phenomenal in his role and while painted as a heartless automaton when barking out commands, he tends to be right more often than not and we are treated to his own inner turmoil. Terrence Malick’s approach to that inner turmoil is the keystone of the film – rendered through voiceovers of the character’s thoughts. Initially innovative, it quickly becomes boring as a string of actors narrate their character’s thoughts in dull monotone. Guadalcanal becomes less of the forge where these men’s souls are broken down and then re-crafted and more of a weekend retreat where they discuss their feelings. Caviezel, in particular, sees far too much exposition – it becomes a real nuisance.
An ambitious film with solid ideas, it breaks under the weight of its own pretentiousness. War is bad, we get that. Even films like “Patton” never really frame the war within the context of being something that the characters are doing because it’s fun. But where films like “The Lost Battalion” and “Saving Private Ryan” humanize the men who fought and died together, “The Thin Red Line” focuses solely on the waste of it all – as if we never really sat back and thought about that before. In the end, it’s ham-fisted with its symbolism, preachy, pompous and dull.