Friday, February 15, 2002

It comes as a considerable letdown when “Hart’s War” falls apart, deflating the expectations created by a very promising, bleakly sinister first reel, which achieves a compelling evocation of the plight of American prisoners of war during the winter of the Battle of the Bulge.

Pitfalls lurking in the scenario result in catastrophic shifts of emphasis. It’s disillusioning to watch a potentially hard-bitten and memorable account of captivity and redemption degenerate into a briar patch of plot trickery and polemical special pleading.

The title alludes to the character played by Colin Farrell rather than Bruce Willis, who makes a somewhat belated entrance. Mr. Farrell’s Tommy Hart is a young lieutenant of some privilege a Yale Law School student and the son of a U.S. senator who has an administrative job at Army headquarters in Belgium on Dec. 16, 1944. He volunteers to drive a senior officer back to his front-line position and ends up in a German ambush.

After an interrogation that is left coyly inconclusive, Hart is placed on a freight train transporting prisoners to Germany. He ends up at Stalag VI A in Augsburg, where he falls under the suspicious authority of Mr. Willis as Col. William McNamara, the ranking American officer.

So far so good. When the colonel’s foxy interrogation suggests that he pegs Hart as a weak link who probably cracked in the early stages of a German grilling, the movie appears to be positioned for an interesting clash of personalities, wills and generations, with Hart destined to do something to compensate for his initial fear and ignorance.

Hart is billeted in a barracks with enlisted men a telltale sign of McNamara’s distrust. Two black airmen, Lt. Lincoln Scott and Lt. Lamar Archer, played by Terrence Howard and Vicellous Shannon, respectively, arrive soon afterward. They make it a trio of ostracized young lieutenants in the Black Sheep Barracks.

As a staff sergeant from the South named Vic Bedford, Cole Hauser promptly vents his racial hostility. I assumed a measure of creative bad faith in this gesture, because Mr. Hauser is the most entertaining actor in the barracks. You expect Bedford’s candor and bravery (conspicuously demonstrated when he defies guards by heaving loaves of bread over the wire to Russian POWs) to be linked to a grudging acceptance of Scott and/or Archer somewhere down the line.

Unfortunately, the script has something else in mind. There’s an execution, then a murder, then a bughouse court martial within the POW community itself. Hart is assigned to represent the defendant, while McNamara sits in judgment. Suddenly, “Hart’s War” is no longer a war movie with an admirable grip on coherence and verisimilitude. In addition to losing a couple of cast members prematurely, the movie leaves itself vulnerable to structural and thematic collapse.

The trial becomes a vehicle for trying to resolve the racial problems of the United States a couple of decades before the civil rights movement reached critical mass. Incredibly, the movie resounds with courtroom argumentation in a politically correct idiom that harmonizes with the present. This orchestration is bound to be anachronistic to a fault in the winter of 1944-45, especially in a setting where other life-and-death issues take precedence.

Moreover, the trial is revealed to be a hoax in context, a diversion engineered by the crafty McNamara to conceal a scheme of his own to sabotage the Germans. If nothing else, you have to admit that “Hart’s War” wanders a far distance from the likes of “The Colditz Story,” “Stalag 17,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “The Guns of Navarone” and “The Great Escape,” which subscribed to the old-fashioned storytelling precept that the audience should be taken into the confidence of the conspiratorial good guys in order to exult more fully in their success or lament more fully their failure and sacrifice.

“Hart’s War” belongs to the crackpot new tradition in which nothing is more important than deceiving the audience as long as possible. In this case, the audience is deceived for so long that the con backfires and stirs contempt for the whole conception.

“Hart’s War” might have made a sincere attempt to clarify the nature of the privations and perils faced by black GIs who became prisoners of war in Germany. That alternative has been overlooked, but if the filmmakers were bucking for PC merit badges, they have earned a trainload.

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