I recently had the opportunity to revisit two films from 1998: Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Saving Private Ryan. It proved to be an interesting study in how personal perceptions change and movies age with time.
Like a lot of people, I was awestruck by the opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan; like many of them, I was dumbfounded when the film was passed over for Best Picture in favor of chick flick piffle like Shakespeare in Love. I also saw The Thin Red Line in the theater soon after its release, and while I found it beautifully shot and certainly liked it, it by no means left the immediate impression upon me that Saving Private Ryan did. If you'd asked me at the time, I'd have told you that Malick's film simply lacked the memorable characters and exciting plotline of Saving Private Ryan. Looking back now, such a seems not only hasty, but to miss the entire point.
Ultimately, it's not so much that the characterization in Saving Private Ryan is so much fuller, but that we're already familiar with its characters from elsewhere, so it is easy to feel like we "know" them. In truth, after the undeniably visceral opening sequence, Saving Private Ryan turns into a fairly standard buddy/war movie, the whole "picked team of champions" motif we've seen time and again in movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Seven Samurai (the archetype of all films of this sort), but that has its roots in the epic and romantic literary traditions of almost every culture (but instead of the 47 Ronin seeking out retribution for their lord or the Knights of the Round Table searching for the Holy Grail, we get GIs on a morale mission). So what we get are stock characters: the bitchin' tough seargent, the feisty Brooklyn Jew, the REMF pussy, the pious southern sniper who prays bullets home (Spielberg strives for historical accuracy; if Saving Private Ryan had been set in Vietnam, I'm sure he would have cast Cuba Gooding Jr. in this role as the Magic Negro), and, of course, Tom Hanks in the role of Tom Hanks, Capt. Everyman.
Unlike Spielberg, Malick is unwilling to take the easy road. There are no memorable "characters" here (Nick Nolte as a Patton wannabe comes closest), because, unlike Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line isn't a movie about people and their choices, with war serving as a background and a tapestry on which weave a narrative, The Thin Red Line is a movie about war: its nature and the way it imposes itself upon the choices and lives of men. The real "protagonist" of The Thin Red Line is the Battle of Guadalcanal itself, and its character is developed, fully, deeply and with careful craftmanship.
The downside to this oblique approach is lost accessibility. The Thin Red Line rewards the attentive, patient viewer with a quietly brilliant film, but it's not buttered popcorn entertainment like Saving Private Ryan. The latter is a crowd pleaser that avoids hard questions. Its famed opening sequence was a gut punch the first time I saw it in the theater, a visceral, almost physical experience. Now the bouncing hand held camera shots and disorienting cuts seem like pandering artifice, and its naive moral clarity comes across as irresponsibly jingoistic. After witnessing 15 minutes of unremitting carnage inflicted upon American forces, we see the first German killed. When I saw it in the theater, half the audience cheered, which is clearly the reaction Spielberg was aiming for. During the extended periods of hokum between battle scenes, Tom Hanks' character indulges in self-important pop philosophy, but such contrived treacle can't cover up the simplistic moralism that underlies the whole picture. When the Pussy convinces Hanks not to murder a German soldier, the pardoned man appears later in the film just to slowly and sadistically stab one of the team members to death. I guess they should've wasted that Hun, no?
The Thin Red Line is something else entirely. Its power is rooted first in its structural rhythm, built from punctuating periods of suffocating tension (shot at a languid pace, and like Apocalypse Now and Platoon, using the claustrophobic beauty of the jungle to great effect) with the intense terror of battle (in this, mirroring war itself). The battle scenes themselves are constructed beautifully, and, reminiscent of Raging Bull, make a brutal poetry of violence through lyrical camera work. Cuts are kept to the bare minimum needed to convey the chaos of battle and, when closeups come, they don't focus pornographically on eviscerated and dismembered corpses (as in Saving Private Ryan), but on the faces and eyes of the officers and men. The emphasis is on the spiritual and psychological impact of war, rather than its purely physical toll. The final battle culminates in the capture of a Japanese position, and the slaughter of the handful of enemy troops who have surrendered. Malick refuses to justify or condemn this action, instead capturing it with a newsreel-like dispassion, simply documenting the moral ambiguity of war.