Isn’t there something wrong with the fact that in 2002, half a century after Sidney Poiter made his film debut, we’re still getting paint-by-numbers liberal message movies that invite us to applaud ourselves for recognizing that black people and white people are the same under the skin? The television ads for Hart’s War, starring Bruce Willis and his elegant facial furrows, would lead you to believe that it’s yet another in the current righteous wave of exploding-grenade combat epics (”Die Hard With a Venerable Cause?”). Actually, ”Hart’s War,” which takes place during the waning days of World War II, is set almost entirely in a German POW camp. It’s an old-fashioned movie with a quaintly old-fashioned lesson to teach us. Think ”The Bridge on the River Kwai” as written by the committee to renominate Al Gore.
At the beginning, there’s a token few minutes of graphic battle spectacle, as Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), a fresh-faced young lieutenant who has virtually no experience in the field, gets ambushed and captured, then herded onto a train and marched through the snow into the camp’s gates, at which point a sneak attack by U.S. bombers graces the moment with a gratuitous crackle of photogenic destruction. Having gotten this action appetizer out of the way, the film settles down to its real agenda. Hart, due to a space shortage, is assigned by the camp’s ranking American officer, a stoic toughie named Col. William McNamara (Willis), to live in a barracks crammed with lowly enlisted men. Farrell, whose hair always looks a little too unmussed, is a bit glam for the period-war setting, but you’re drawn to his slightly solemn air of concentration; he’s like the world’s most self-possessed Eagle Scout. His gears are churning in even the calmest, quietest scenes, and that’s part of what makes a star.
Before long, Hart and the other men are joined by a pair of black Air Force pilots led by Lt. Lincoln A. Scott (Terrence Howard). These two have fought their way up the ranks of a military establishment that isn’t exactly in the business of encouraging black recruits. If they don’t say much, that’s because it’s clear that their presence isn’t welcome. They’re the odd inmates out, especially to Staff Sgt. Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser), a drawling racist who is not the least bit shy about tossing the word nigger around. The moment it popped out of his mouth, I flashed back to the shock I felt as a kid in 1967, when Telly Savalas, as the repulsive Bible-thumper Maggott, used it to insult Jim Brown in ”The Dirty Dozen.” In a strange way, a part of me hoped that the new film would feature a comparable spice rack of peppery, disreputable characters, that maybe we were in for a boisterous update of ”Stalag 17.” ”Hart’s War,” I’m afraid, has no such frivolous ambitions.
Directed, with lots of frozen-breath-in-the-floodlights atmosphere, by Gregory Hoblit (”Frequency,” ”Primal Fear”), it is, instead, a grimly competent and stolid and earnest military courtroom drama. One of the American prisoners is killed in the middle of the night, an event that might appear to be terror as usual in a prison camp run by Third Reich goons. Nevertheless, Colonel McNamara persuades the commandant, Colonel Visser (Marcel Iures), a disarmingly courtly Nazi with whom he has an underground relationship, to have a tribunal assembled. Lieutenant Scott, who appears to have had a motive for the crime (plus, a knife was found under his mattress), is placed on trial for murder, and Hart, the senator’s son who was on his way to getting a Yale law degree before the war beckoned, is assigned to defend the helpless black soldier. Actually, let me rephrase that. What I meant to say is, the helpless black soldier who has so much to teach us about courage and tolerance.
A movie that bends over backwards to be ”moral” may reveal its true morality in a way that it didn’t intend. When Terrence Howard, who was so wily and charming in ”The Best Man,” gets up on the witness stand and gives his big speech, the movie doesn’t soar — it sags into cliché. ”Hart’s War” is structured so that the black man, ennobled by his fight against prejudice, preaches the lesson of self-sacrifice, a credo that ripples out among the white soldiers and allows them to accomplish the real mission behind the trial.
Yet what’s actually being sacrificed here is the sense that an African-American character need be anything more than a symbol. It may seem harmless, to some, that our movies have never entirely abandoned the land of Poitier-ville, but as ”Hart’s War” demonstrates, it’s an insult that they haven’t. Making do with the occasional work of Spike Lee, the annual Oscar bait of an ”Ali” or ”Monster’s Ball,” or Denzel Washington as the anti-Poitier in ”Training Day” is no longer enough. When it comes to the treatment of race, Hollywood, despite such exceptions, now lags behind the rest of the country, trapped in a time warp of its own making, brandishing a mantle of tattered liberal sainthood that has never looked more like a chain.