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WITNESS
Special Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Alexander Gudunov, Danny Glover
Director: Peter Weir
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Paramount
Features: See Review
Length: 112 Minutes
Release Date: August 23, 2005

“It’s not our way.”

“It’s MY way!”

Film ***1/2

Witness still stands as one of the most memorable films from the 1980s for various reasons. For Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, the film, his first American film production, gave him perfect exposure to the American film market. For Harrison Ford, who at that point had achieved the level of superstar, the film presented a strong revelation. Lastly, the film’s strongest power is its blending of two very different movies into one.

The film opens with a most beautiful, and lyrical, series of scenes involving the citizens of a quiet Amish community in Pennsylvania. The cinematography by John Seale fully deserves the Oscar nomination it was rewarded with in capturing the striking beauty of the Amish countryside. The townsfolk prepare to send young Samuel Lapp (Lukas Haas) along with mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) for a safe train ride to visit relatives.

Then something most unexpected happens which takes the movie in a whole new direction. At the train station, Samuel witnesses the brutal slaying of an off duty cop from a bathroom stall. The young boy’s narrow escape from death remains one of the biggest close calls ever done in a movie.

Enter Philadelphia cop John Book (Ford), who confronts young Samuel and attempts to gather information based on what he saw as the murder took place. The only information he can deliver is the description of two men, one black and one white. After gathering several facts, including the identity of one of the killers, it soon becomes clear that the murder was committed by cops in Book’s own precinct.

When the same men come after Book and the mother and son, the cop makes a bold move by escorting the two back to the Amish country, all the while tending to a gun shot wound. Just as he places the two in safe haven, Book passes out in the car, and the community takes him in to nurse him and see that he recovers. Before long, Book soon learns of the level of corruption in his own department, and with no one left to trust, he hides out among the Amish, knowing good and well that the killers will soon come looking for him.

The Oscar-winning screenplay by William Kelly, Earl Wallace and Pamela Wallace is nothing short of pure genius in terms of character and storytelling. The portrait of two very different worlds, the harsh city life where Ford’s cop character comes from and the beauty and wonder of the Amish community that he becomes attached to, even in the matter of being forced to in order to protect a witness, is so well crafted. This is one story that unfolds at a most unique level. The suspenseful standoff near the end of the film, between Book and the corrupt cops on the Amish farm, remains a most incredible sequence, and one that seems to come out of nowhere.

If anything, Witness will stand as a huge turning point for Harrison Ford. Not only did the film garner him his first and only Oscar nomination to date for Best Actor, but it demonstrated that he could be just as strong in different material, other than the adventurous roles he was known for at the time. He pours his heart and soul into the role of John Book. He and director Weir must have struck the right note, since Ford’s next project would be Weir’s next film, The Mosquito Coast, which was another incredible departure for the actor.

For both Ford and Weir, Witness will always stand as a pure accomplishment for both. It delivers what may still be Harrison Ford’s best screen performance to date, and is yet another high mark on the long list of great films from Peter Weir. It’s a true gem that’s always worth revisiting.

BONUS TRIVIA: Look for a very young Viggo Mortensen, making his film debut, in a supporting role as a young Amish lad.

Video ***1/2

Although released on DVD once before, this is my first time seeing the movie in the format. I must say that I was more than impressed with Paramount’s grand handling of the anamorphic picture. The image quality is most outstanding, particularly in the Amish countryside which illume with sheer cinematic beauty, boasting images to remember. Several darker toned shots don’t fare as successful, but they’re not even a big distraction.

Audio ***

For an 80s piece, Witness gets a most satisfying level of remastered sound. The 5.1 mix is satisfactory as far as dialogue delivery, numerous action scenes, and especially Maurice Jarr’s poetic score to the film.

Features ***

The heart of this Special Collector’s Edition release is the intriguing and very informative 5 part documentary titled “Between Two Worlds”, a retrospective piece that covers angles from origins all the way up to post production. Also included is a deleted scene, a theatrical trailer and TV spots for the film.

Summary:

Witness remains a strong cinematic piece, as well as one of the most memorable films to emerge from the 80s. Peter Weir’s directing and Harrison Ford’s magnificent performance blend with a truly outstanding script. It’s a film that deserves to be revisited time and time again, and this Special Collector’s Edition release is the best reason to do so.

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