Saturday, August 20, 2005

Film: The Great Raid is a great relief

This summer movie season reminds me of the parts of A Clockwork Orange in which young Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is bound to a chair with his eyes forced open as visuals of mindless, pointless violence flash endlessly on a screen.

Thus, The Great Raid, although certainly no less violent than many other films released this summer, really felt like a breath of fresh air. At least the violence in this movie has meaning.

That said, The Great Raid is a good movie, not a superb one. It hasn't got the emotional power of Saving Private Ryan--everyone in this film is stoic almost to a fault--or the spine-wrenching intensity of Enemy at the Gates. But considering the historical context, the filmmakers probably were right to keep things a bit on the restrained side.

The film deals with the heroic end to one of the more shameful episodes involving U.S. policy during World War II--the abandonment of hundreds of American forces to brutal Japanese imprisonment in the Philippines. I've long suspected FDR's "Germany first" policy would've been a lot harder sell if folks at home had had a clearer picture of what was going on in those Filipino prison camps or on the Bataan Death March that sent the POWs to the camps. The abandonment of the Philippines early in the war, while it probably was the only practical thing to do under the circumstances, is something no American should be able to think about without a twinge of conscience. I'm no big fan of Douglas MacArthur, but he was right about that one.

The Great Raid doesn't gloss over that negative aspect, but it's clear from the outset that its purpose lies in telling the story of the rescue mission, not the reasons why a rescue became necessary. One can argue that the rescue was too little and too late, a point the film itself makes in its focus on a POW leader who eventually doesn't survive despite the lengths others go to on his behalf. In truth, the raid on Cabanatuan was largely symbolic, but if symbols weren't powerful, military uniforms would be a lot plainer and nobody would hang up the flag on the Fourth of July.

The film has its thrilling, suspenseful and poignant moments, but the suspense is somewhat muted by the fact that you already know how the story ends. The acting is competent but not all that compelling (headliner Benjamin Bratt has an uncanny resemblance to the actual commander on the raid, Lt. Col. Mucci), with the exception of Joseph Fiennes' fine turn as Maj. Daniel Gibson, the ill-fated leader of the POWs. But, like I said, it's all very stoic, giving nobody in the cast much opportunity to emote. The film sticks to the facts of the mission, in the process de-emphasizing the personalities, which leaves it all feeling just a bit sterile.

If you want to see this film in a theater--and that's where the impact of it will be greatest--you probably need to hurry. It was very sparsely attended in our neighborhood Cinemark, while the Alex types flocked to another dose of aversion therapy down the hall.

On another, somewhat lighter note, I've really been waffling about whether to see The Brothers Grimm when it opens next week. I keep thinking things like "Terry Gilliam, Matt Damon, Heath Ledger--how bad could it be?" And then I see another of those godawful previews and remember that August often is the month when studios throw out their trash, and realize it could be very, very bad indeed. I'm leaning toward waiting for the DVD.


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