Though it's Bruce Willis' gargantuan mug that MGM has splattered all over the picture's promotional materials, it's actually Irish actor Colin Farrell who plays the titular part of novelist John Katzenbach's Lt. Thomas Hart, a silver-spoon fed senator's son and law student whose days away from the front lines of World War II abruptly end when he is captured in a German ambush and sent to a faraway prisoner-of-war camp. There he is grilled by the ranking American prisoner--the gruff, enigmatic Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis)--and introduced to the manipulative, charismatic German commandant, Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures). It's a familiar axis of power that creates an initial impression that “Hart's War” will probably follow established protocol, i.e. good Americans, bad Germans and little moral middle-ground left to either debate or interpretation.
Such facile expectations are soon dashed, however, by the introduction of two new prisoners--downed U.S. Army Air Corps flyers who happen to also be black (Terrence Howard and Vicellous Shannon). No sooner do the new men arrive than age-old American social frictions manifest themselves in microcosm. Racism, class divisions and conflicting views of human nature, morality and even war itself open up like festering sores, initiating a fascinating course of events that culminate with a bizarre in-camp court-martial and a series of clever, unexpected twists.
While “Hart's War” is by no means in the same league with classics like “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or even “A Soldier's Story,” which it also partially resembles, it works for similar reasons. Tautly and stylishly directed by Gregory Hoblit (“Frequency,” “Fallen”) from an excellent adaptation by Billy Ray and Terry George, “Hart's War” repeatedly toys with the audience's sense of loyalty and truth, allowing them to experience firsthand the dilemma of Lt. Hart, whose background in law makes him the de facto defender of the accused prisoner. At some stage, nearly everyone is depicted as either patriot or scoundrel, scheming or misunderstood, leaving Hart understandably conflicted in his predicament. It's an obvious manipulation, but no less manipulative than the internal machinations of the camp itself, conveniently enabling Hoblit and the writers to exploit narrative tricks that would be entirely unacceptable in any other format.
Excepting a few brief moments of combat, “Hart's War” is an intimate, character-driven, complexly-plotted picture that could have been positioned for Oscar contention in a variety of categories had it been handled by a more visionary and courageous distributor. Releasing the film in late February, just as the previous year's Oscar nominees are enjoying their second wind at the box office, seems a sure way to kill an otherwise deserving movie. But with luck it will stay around long enough for word-of-mouth to reach that pivotal group of discerning, intelligent, thinking moviegoers whom MGM was only too eager to alienate in the first place. Starring Bruce Willis, Colin Farrell, Terrence Howard, Cole Hauser, Marcel Iures and Linus Roache. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Written by Billy Ray and Terry George. Produced by David Ladd, David Foster, Gregory Hoblit and Arnold Rifkin. An MGM release. War drama. Rated R for some strong war violence and language. Running time: 104 min