“Hart’s War” is a big movie that takes on big themes with the courage to give them time and allow for some ambiguity.
Although it is set in WWII and has some battle violence, it is primarily a human drama about honor, sacrifice, courage, and dignity, themes that are explored from the farthest reaches as ideals and from the most personal choices made by individuals.
Lt. Hart (Colin Farrell) is a soldier who works at a desk, far from enemy lines. His father is a Senator, and he was in his second year at Yale Law School when he joined the Army. He tells us that troops were just pins on a map to him. He is glad for the chance to get out into the countryside when he gets an opportunity act as driver for a commanding officer. But the officer is killed and Hart is captured by the Germans. They torture him to try to get him to provide information, and then they ship him off to a prisoner of war camp.
The ranking American officer at the camp is Colonel McNamara (Bruce Willis). The German commandant is Colonel Visser (Romanian actor Marcel Iures). The commanding officers have more in common, and perhaps more respect for one another, than they would like to admit.
When two black officers arrive at the camp, the fragile balance of power is disrupted. Because the officer’s quarters are full, they, like Hart, are put in with the enlisted men, who object. During WWII, the armed services were still segregated, so none of the American soldiers had ever had to live with black men before, much less salute them. When the most outspokenly racist soldier is murdered, a black officer is accused, Hart is assigned as his defense counsel, and a court-martial is set up.
About 45 minutes into the story, it begins to become clear that it is not intended to reflect or illuminate the history of about WWII or indeed any war or any history. It is only set in a POW camp as a way to provide a sharper focus for the issues it addresses. McNamara tells Wasser that Americans don’t make distinctions. Wasser, serving more in the role of Socratic interrogator than enemy, points out that America makes a lot of distinctions, especially when it comes to black people. Will the officer get a fairer trial in a German POW camp than he would in the Georgia of the 1940’s? In the POW camp, the black officers face far more mortal danger from their fellow Americans than they do from the Nazis.
The story has some surprising twists and turns, and an ending that will spark some discussion as audiences leave the theater. The performances are excellent, with Terrence Howard a standout as the accused man, telling the court that in his home town, white German POWs can eat at the diner and go to the movie theater, while he, an officer risking his life for his country, cannot.
Parents should know that the movie has some graphic battle violence. Characters are killed. There is some strong language, and some references to drinking. Issues of honor, integrity, equality, justice, and balancing individual rights with the good of the group are all explored.
Families who see this movie should talk about the segregation that existed in the United States before the 1960’s, and the consequences that are still felt today. They should also talk about the choices made by Hart, McNamara, Wasser, and Scott. Which ones surprised you? Which did you agree with?
Families who appreciate this movie will also like the two great WWII POW dramas Stalag 17 and The Great Escape, both based on true stories. They will also like Breaker Morant, another story of a military legal proceeding with an inexperienced defense attorney and the brilliant anti-war drama Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson.