A pair of comrades in arms

The honest portrayal of war in 'Saving Private Ryan' touches hearts. 'The Thin Red Line' attacks from another angle, probing profound spiritual issues.

The year-end movie competitions have begun with a split decision.

One of the most venerable award-giving groups, the New York Film Critics Circle, named Steven Spielberg's hard-hitting World War II drama, "Saving Private Ryan," the best movie of 1998. Moments later, the same voters named Terrence Malick best director for "The Thin Red Line," a new film (it won't be widely released until Jan. 8) that takes a very different look at the same war and the same ordinary, unglamorous soldiers who fought and died in it.

Did these pundits know what they were doing when they pronounced Malick a better filmmaker, even though Spielberg made the better film? Or do these seemingly contradictory choices bear out the suspicion that critics' opinions are more wobbly and perplexing than those of the average Saturday-night moviegoer?

As it happens, the paradoxical vote makes sense. "Saving Private Ryan" probably is the year's best movie in terms of balancing serious subject matter - especially in the astonishingly honest battle sequence that fills its first 30 minutes - with more box-office popularity than even Spielberg expected to achieve. The film touched a deep chord in moviegoers with its dramatic story and heartfelt sympathy for the ordeals of everyday GIs.

Just as clearly, "The Thin Red Line" is more complex, less smoothly crafted, and possibly too ambitious for its own good. Yet many reviewers find it to have a deeper sense of personal and intellectual passion, and to be ultimately more profound in its examination of the human contradictions and spiritual costs exacted by the horrors of battle.

So some critics decided it was perfectly reasonable to vote for both. In an age when movie grosses are reported by the media as if they were sports statistics, it may seem odd to view two films as partners in a cultural exploration rather than adversaries in a contest. But each of these films has its own merit, and while it's natural to prefer one over the other, it's fair to give each picture its due.

"The Thin Red Line" is based on James Jones's novel, published in 1962 and based on his own memories. Its characters belong to a US Army company on Guadalcanal, a Pacific atoll with Japanese troops, supplies, and equipment that the GIs are ordered to capture, neutralize, or destroy. Like the book, Malick's movie wanders restlessly from one soldier or group to another, showing less interest in battlefield logistics than in personal responses to the disorienting, frequently ghastly circumstances.

Jones's novel takes a modernistic approach, steering the plot away from unified storytelling in favor of a fragmented style that embodies the nervous, unstable quality of wartime experience. The movie seems even more unconventional since it can't use simple shifts of phrasing to reveal the unspoken thoughts and hidden emotions of its characters. Malick has never followed the usual rules, and here his technique is more innovative than ever, using not a traditional first-person narrator but an intermittent series of voice-over soliloquies that put us into vivid contact with depths of consciousness rarely evoked in motion-picture terms.

Reworking the star system

In addition to their psychological value, these voice-overs join with another of Malick's favorite devices - frequent shots of plants, animals, sea, and sky - to suggest that people's hearts and minds are fundamentally woven into a single, seamless web extending beyond humanity to the overarching realm of nature, and farther still to the higher power that created its underlying principles of harmony and understanding. Contrasted with this idea, the destructiveness of combat emerges as not just a human misfortune but a state of spiritual confusion that cries out for correction if humans are to realize their rightful place in the order of things.

Even the movie's casting contributes to its message, reworking the Hollywood star system to imply that in wartime all hierarchies are up for grabs and may be leveled before our eyes. A few excellent actors, including Nick Nolte and Sean Penn, get enough time to build an impressive charge of movie-style charisma. Yet others, most notably Woody Harrelson, hardly arrive on the screen before some outrageous eruption of battlefield chaos puts them out of sight and mind for the rest of the picture.

A protest against war itself

Although the fragmented structure of "The Thin Red Line" helps express its vision of war as a ruthless destroyer of order and meaning, it's likely that not all the movie's gambits were built into Malick's original plan. The picture seems too short to fully realize its grand design even at 166 minutes, and some aspects seem sketchy or muddled. These problems won't help the movie win its coming box-office battles.

Also working against it will be inevitable comparisons with "Saving Private Ryan," which excels in the smooth, emotionally juiced-up storytelling that "The Thin Red Line" often leaves behind, purposefully or not. There's no question about the appeal of Spielberg's approach, or the brilliance of his first battle episode, which captures the ferocity of combat with an unshakable urgency - becoming a protest against war itself.

This message is canceled by the last 30 minutes, though, when Spielberg falls back on exactly the sort of guts-and-glory conventions that old-fashioned World War II movies use to justify and even glamorize their subject. Malick allows no such compromises to dilute the imperfect yet compelling logic of his boldly nontraditional tale.

r 'The Thin Red Line' and 'Saving Private Ryan,' both rated R, contain vulgar language and long scenes of battlefield violence. David Sterritt's e-mail address is sterrittd@csps.com

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