A Midnight Clear (1992, Keith Gordon)
Somehow it’s only just occurred to me what a naturally reductive genre label “war film” is — because although in my head I dislike war films, I think what I’m really reacting to is the number of them that are essentially action pictures. There are clearly war movies I cherish, from Full Metal Jacket on back, and it seems more than possible to feature the chilly, arid battlegrounds as a setting for remarkably brooding, sensitive storytelling — largely because of the impact that war service must inevitably have on its participants. That mature perspective upon the coming of age, the stunting of growth, is something too often skirted over. It’s simple enough to cite the weary voiceover and philosophical meandering of The Thin Red Line and Apocalypse Now as important exceptions, but this little-seen 1992 film is one of the very few war films I have seen that truly explores the matter in an emotionally vivid, empathetic and heartfelt sense. Beautiful and devastating, it leaves all the same scars as Full Metal Jacket but far more subtly — and its crafting of a pained, believably tragic tale renders it a near-masterpiece, particularly within the context of the war film as a cinematic motif.
We begin by exploring not the distant corners of Europe this small Intelligence unit inhabits, but the architecture of the faces and souls of the men in the squadron: sad-faced, terrified Mother (Gary Sinise), caring and hopeful Will Knott (Ethan Hawke), and heavily compassionate and responsible Father (Frank Whaley) above all. The entire cast is phenomenal at articulating facially, verbally, physically the strange remote dread and hopelessness of their state as they hole up in an abandoned house to keep an eye on a nearby German company that they gradually learn intends to surrender rather than fight on the forthcoming last major offensive of the war.
There’s no action to be found here, nothing so cathartic to let the audience off the hook or guide them to any kind of standard war-film iconography. The film begins disarmingly — with an internal crisis and external screaming — and, though typically quiet and deliberately paced, never steps away from its eerily tense tone, except in a warm and heartbreaking flashback documenting (in an unexpectedly aching, respectful sense worthy of Hal Ashby, in sharp contrast to the typical American cinematic deconstruction and genitalization of sex) the boys’ loss of virginity to a woman who lost her fiance in battle. You’re alerted early on that the film intends to swipe the rug from underneath you emotionally, and it’s hard not to marvel at how much catharsis it thus manages in so little time, which is a consequence of its intimate grasp of humanity in and out of war, as opposed to any kind of depiction of men whose lives are utterly defined as soldiers and/or the “greater cause.” This automatically renders it an exponentially better and more knowing film than Steven Spielberg’s ugly, ponderous Saving Private Ryan; in a perfect world, A Midnight Clear — which makes me hurt for and understand these young men so much more — would have all the cachet that film enjoys.
When, later, the German company at last finds some way to show their faith and camaraderie to their American counterparts, after a few abortive attempts at communication, it’s through the common language of Christmas, an open offering of human commonality — they appear outside the house with a Christmas tree and sing a carol to them. That’s when the first tears came for me; it’s such an elegant and direct expression flying over and beneath any language or political barrier, and its effect on the Americans is as startling as the act itself. The knowledge that the events of the film are based on the actual experiences of writer William Wharton fashions this and what follows into something even more crushing — yet, in this moment at least, wondrous and hopeful.
That doesn’t last — the volatility of war and the tension between these men is too much. But the way it unravels is human, honest, awful in an uncinematic and artless sense crushed by some sense of cynical inevitability, an instant growing up, an extinguishing of a certain optimism. It manifests in three dimensions the real statement this movie has to make, one few movies ever bother to: the way that young and introspective people, specifically men but really anyone, relate to and protect one another. The attempts by the men of this squadron to protect their most fragile member finally results in the loss of lives and the permanent alterations of their spirits. You sense every fragile thread that links them, every misunderstanding and disappointment that challenges those links.
Two films spring to mind as worthy comparisons, and they are magnificent company to be in; as much as the format of the film evokes Malick, the sense of futility and loss easily calls up Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, most likely the best war film ever made and the most passionate, at least in regard to its perception of young lives shattered. But although it isn’t a war film, in its sensitivity and undiluted empathy toward its characters, its bearing witness of their plights, I was reminded most of all of The Best Years of Our Lives, and thought almost that we could be seeing the lives of the men in that film before its events, when they were actually at war, what horror and strangeness that might have stirred up in them. We so rarely see war deconstructed with three-dimensional characterization — the list of exceptions is small, but illustrious, and this joins it. Honestly, I cannot believe it isn’t a better known film, unless perhaps it’s because the emotions it touches on are so uncomfortable, its central sadness so overpowering.
This is the second film directed by former actor Keith Gordon, so splendid and believable in films like Dressed to Kill, and like his witty Wellesian debut The Chocolate War about the politicized happenings of a fundraiser at a prep school, it stands as one of the best and starkest movies about young men I have ever seen. Visually as well, his work is sumptuous and conceptually nearly perfect; it’s a pity he’s only directed five films, working these days mostly in television, but I have high hopes that he’s able to create more in the future. A Midnight Clear has struggled for recognition over the last few decades; you can’t even buy it in this country in its original aspect ratio, which is criminal. [2020 note: Shout! Factory is finally releasing the film on these shores as intended this spring; also, multi-region capable viewers have had access to a Second Slight blu-ray for several years now.] For this film alone, Gordon deserves to be known as some sort of a master, and he should have been given so many more opportunities after this than he was — after a fraught production, he managed to turn in this sobering, galvanizing movie that cries out, begs, to be seen and understood. Put The Chocolate War and A Midnight Clear on your Netflix queue promptly (you still get the discs from Netflix, too, right? Right!?) — I’ll be doing the same for Mother Night the second I finish posting this review.