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THE THIN RED LINE

Review by Michael Jacobson
(DTS Audio comments by Alex Haberstroh)

Stars:  Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Jim Caviezel, George Clooney
Director:  Terrence Malick
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, DTS 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  None
Length:  170 Minutes
Release Date:  January 23, 2001

Film ****

The Thin Red Line may easily be the most poetic war film ever made, and easily the best written.  Itís such a purely cinematic experience that itís difficult to describe in words just how oddly beautiful and hypnotic a picture it is.  It plays out almost like a novel.  We are introduced to the men who do the fighting, but we get to know them mostly through their inner dialogues, which cut through in between the often harshly spoken words of war. 

The story takes place in the Pacific, as a platoon of American soldiers are attempting to take back a strategic island from the Japanese.  As the picture opens, one is pondering about natureÖwhy does it contend with itself?  And this presents a motif that runs throughout the film.  The island is a beautiful tropic setting, with green trees and tall, wavy grass that the soldiers sometimes seem to disappear into.  Time and time again, as the battles rage, we are shown the elements of natureÖalligators, birds, snakes, the wild dogs that drag away the dead.  They arenít paying much heed to the human tragedies unfolding amongst them.  The message is very clearÖit is not nature that contends, but rather manís refusal to fit in with the natural world that causes such havoc. 

But director/screenwriter Terrence Malick instinctively knows that the true power of a war film does not entirely lie within harsh, brutal, chaotic battle scenes.  His quieter moments, which are allowed to unfold and function at their own pace, are where the men are forced to philosophize and question everything around them and inside of them.  Those maddening moments where whole eternities seem to pass between the minutes, where all you can do is reflect on what youíve done, and what you likely will do, and if it comes down to dying, what exactly does it all mean?  If thereís one thing psychology has taught us, itís that a personís true character emerges during a critical situation.  So we may not learn much of these men in terms of their histories or relationships, but what things we do learn are brutally honest and forthright.  In fact, we may know more about what kind of people these men really are than the person who lives next door to them for five years in civilian life.

I donít mean to make the film sound existentialÖit is in a way, but not directly so.  This isnít Socrates or Sartre at work here, but a real human drama unfolding in the hearts and minds of men who are forced to do the unthinkable.

There are so many powerful and contemplative moments in the picture that it would be difficult to list them all.  One that sticks out in my mind above all others is the soldier who volunteers to go alone and scope out a bunker where the enemy has been picking off the platoon like flies.  It is an anxious moment, and we can see the fear in his eyes as he edges towards his objective.  He knows heís likely going to die, and in a few well constructed scenes, we witness that he is thinking about the wife he left behind, and their happiest moments together.  Obviously, if heís going to die, thatís what he wants to go out with.

Then there are moments of death and destruction that ring out with honestyÖnot melodrama.  Young men drawing their last breath reach for a hand to hold, knowing that the only thing worse than dying is dying alone.  In a later scene, as the Americans celebrate their victory in a particular battle, we watch the Japanese soldiers playing out the same scenarios.  We may not understand the language, but it becomes painfully clear that enemy or no, they donít want to die any more than the Americans.  It is amazing how Malick takes these characters, whom we only see briefly and canít understand, but he still manages to speak volumes through them.

And I would be remiss if I didnít mention that this picture is also one of the most well-acted and photographed war movies Iíve ever seen.  The star studded cast is terrific, with top notch work from Penn and Nolte in particular, but with lesser known actors like Caviezel and Koteas holding their own with them.  With the filmís tight structure of intermittent dialogue and inner monologues, thereís simply no way it could have communicated to the audience what it needed to without dedication and perfection from the entire cast, and thatís what the picture boasts. 

And as for Terrence Malickís visualsÖsimply breathtaking.  Malick is a director who doesnít waste one millimeter of screen space, nor does he employ a single gratuitous move of the camera.  In fact, his camera work is so tight, thereís likely not a moment in the film where you think to yourself, ďwhoa, great camera moveĒ (though youíre likely to think about it later).  Every motion has a purpose, and weaves so tightly into the structure of the film that it becomes almost futile to try and separate the components that comprise a scene.  His use of sound and music is seamless, too, and sometimes you donít even consider the way he brings up the score and lowers the dialogue, or vice versa, to accentuate certain aspects of his shots.  And his cinematography, which heís probably most famous for as a filmmaker, is gorgeous.  He simply knows how to bring the most life and color out of any natural setting he shoots in.

I think itís entirely fair to call The Thin Red Line one of the best war movies ever made, especially considering how uniquely poetic it is, both in word and vision.  Itís different from, but every bit the equal to Saving Private Ryan in terms of acting strength, direction, and lingering emotional power.

Video ****

This is one of Foxís best offerings so far.  The anamorphic transfer is beautiful, and services well the unique vision and cinematography of Malick.  There is no grain or compression evident anywhere, and all images, even in deep focus or low lighting, are razor sharp, with extremely well defined colors.  One scene shows a green parakeet against a large green leafÖeach a slightly different shade, but both clearly defined and set apart from each other. 

Audio:
Dolby Digital ****

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is every bit the match of the visual transfer, and is one of the best Iíve heard.  As you might expect, the war scenes make the most of multi-channel sound, with excellent dynamic range and plenty of bottom end for the subwoofer, but even more than that, the soundtrack is almost three dimensional.  Sometimes sounds actually appear to be emanating from different layers of space.  Outstanding.  

DTS ****

The Thin Red Lineís audio is everything youíve come to expect from a conventional war movie -- brilliant use of surround sound that puts the listener in the middle of battle, crisp dialogue, and a powerfully moving score.  Every sound, no matter how simple, is picked up with unbelievable clarity. 

The sound in this movie is wide-ranging and dynamic, and helps drive the story forward.  Through the incredible contrast of beautiful dream sequences to bloody jungle melees and surging oceans, the sound never lets up.  

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track was a breathtaking example of reference quality audio, only slightly surpassed by the addition of the movieís new DTS track, (one of the better oneís Iíve heard since U-571) which once again performed better at a lower range on the .1 LFE track, making gunfire and explosions slightly punchier.  I also enjoyed the DTS trackís ability to make sounds subtler, so it wasnít as obvious where the sound was always coming from, which was especially important in the constant dream sequences that occurred.  

While I donít think Iíd repurchase the movie simply for the DTS track, I appreciate that Fox is reissuing its titles in both Dolby Digital and DTS.  This for one is a great audio transfer from Fox that deserves a commendation.  Keep up the good work!

Features (zero stars)

Nothing. 

Summary:

The Thin Red Line is cinema at itís most beautiful, powerful, and poetic.  It may not alter the course of the war film genre, but it proves that a tried and true format can be presented in new, unique, and more thoughtful ways.  This is Terrence Malickís masterpiece, and should not be missed.