"In combat, confusion is normal," an Army manual helpfully pointed out in World War II. That same confusion seems to have infected "A Midnight Clear," a much overpraised film that follows a squad of hyperintelligent GIs through the Battle of the Bulge, which, they discover, turns out to be no fun at all.
The movie is derived from William ("Birdy") Wharton's novel of the same name, a work of passionate bitterness based on the author's own experiences as the survivor of such a unit. It's not exactly a book that embraces the Big Picture: It angrily recounts how the genetic seed of future cancer researchers, doctors, corporate raiders and entertainment lawyers was indiscriminately squandered by a callous American Army with the narrow goal of defeating the Third Reich and liberating an enslaved and terrorized Europe.
It is perhaps beside the point to observe that the boys are lovely young men, sensitive and decent and ripe with promise, but pretty lousy soldiers. What happens to them is what happens to bad soldiers in all the armies of the world: They die. And I wonder further if Wharton or the young writer-director Keith Gordon, who amplifies his bitterness in this film, are quite willing to endorse the necessary ramification of their bitterness: Are they saying that wars should only be fought by the cannon fodder of the working class and that the intellectually superior (such as themselves) should be spared its nasty rigors? As James Webb has pointed out, for every Harvard boy who didn't serve in Vietnam, a Rusty Calley did.
As the movie has it, the sad sack Intelligence and Reconnaissance platoon -- entirely made up of young men with IQs over 150 -- is sent to a chateau in the Ardennes to report on German movement by its martinet regimental commander (John C. McGinley, who specializes in playing jerks). He actually expects them to kill Germans and spend cold nights far from home. But it soon turns out that the few Germans in the area have themselves given up on the war effort, and the two small forces, after some flirting (the Germans launch snowballs rather than grenades) agree on a separate peace.
Gordon does some things very well: The best part of the movie is the middle third, where the two squads, hesitant, awkward and very frightened, reach out to each other amid a landscape fraught with snowy menace. The movie has a surrealistic quality, somewhat akin to (but not as good as) Sydney Pollack's film version of a similar novel, William Eastlake's "Castle Keep." And Gordon is very good with the actors he's got playing his beardless warriors: Ethan Hawke, Kevin Dillon and Arye Gross are the three standouts.
But he's a clumsy action director and, worse, the film more or less peters out in a decidedly anticlimactic third act. The director relies too much on narration lifted from the novel's text to bridge gaps in the story, a device that robs the narrative of much of its vitality.
And, of course, it's based on a canard of almost mythic dimensions -- the idea that highly intelligent men make the worst soldiers, because they're too delicate and imaginative. Indeed, they make the best, as the Battle of the Bulge, where a couple of college-boy-rich American engineering platoons stopped a couple of Panzer battalions, proved. Now somebody ought to make a movie about those fights.
"A Midnight Clear'
Starring Ethan Hawke and Kevin Dillon.
Directed by Keith Gordon.
Released by InterStar.