One of the most unusual and engrossing World War II movies ever made, A Midnight Clear transcends the genre by virtue of its keen insight and quiet eloquence. This leisurely paced adaptation of William Wharton’s unforgettable novel begins in the eerie Ardennes forest during the winter of 1944, as a group of young, inexperienced American soldiers carry out a reconnaissance mission. They play a suspenseful cat-and-mouse game with German soldiers who, apparently aware that theirs is a lost cause, indicate some willingness to surrender if they can save face. At this point, the screenplay by director Keith Gordon (The Chocolate War) diverges from the tried-and-true paths of most war movies and moves toward an altogether unexpected conclusion. Gordon depicts war as an exercise in surrealism to which insanity is a reasonable if not inevitable reaction. His setting reinforces this view; the snow-covered forest seems to hold mysteries beyond human ken, and it makes an oddly suitable backdrop for the patently unreal conflicts that ensue. The cast is uniformly excellent: Ethan Hawke is especially good as the young squad leader whose authority is challenged in ways he never imagined, while Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg, Arye Gross, and Gary Sinise portray the other soldiers with equal subtlety. Gordon’s modest film -- released theatrically in 1992 and promptly banished to video-store shelves -- is no jingoistic, flag-waving shoot-’em-up. Rather, it’s a provocative, bitterly ironic parable guaranteed to linger in memory long after viewing.
An interesting, offbeat war movie, A Midnight Clear is often so successful at capturing the loneliness and futility of war and its profound impact upon the men thrust together to fight it that you have to wonder whether Steven Spielberg and Terrence Malick were in some small way influenced by it with, respectively, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Director Keith Gordon is admirably restrained and very detailed in his depiction of a group of six soldiers (Peter Berg, Kevin Dillon, Arye Gross, Ethan Hawke, Gary Sinise, and Frank Whaley) manning a chateau in the icy Ardennes Forest on the eve of the Battle of the Bulge. Like Spielberg later did with Ryan, Gordon wisely keeps the movie's focus on the six men and what they endure. The film has enough character study and intelligence to turn inside out war film staples and get at something deeper: the soldiers' quiet yet harrowing struggle to keep some semblance of decency, sanity, and faith in their lives. A good example: Out on the town together for the first time, the recruits try to pick up a prostitute. It's a cliché. Then they learn that the woman (Rachel Griffin) is actually a nice girl who just lost her husband to the war and is so grief-stricken that getting together with them is for her an act of self-destruction. Their sensitive consolation of her, and her eventual, gentle seduction of all of them, is a touching reminder of how people can find solace in strangers at the worst times of their lives, even war.
The opening shots of A Midnight Clear have a clarity and force that linger, casting a spell over the entire movie.
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