A MIDNIGHT CLEAR
One wades through hundreds of videos looking for an unexpected jewel like "A Midnight Clear." That it was written and directed by relative newcomer Keith Gordon and features a cast that few would be able to identify makes the surprise even more pleasant.
The setting of the Ardennes Forest, near the French-German border during World War II, is a perfect but most unlikely one for the kind of anti-war message usually associated with the Vietnam War. Perfect because this message about the absurdity of war is applicable to more than just those battles that can't be justified in a strategic sense.
The point is realized by the remaining six members of an intelligence and reconnaissance squad (joined because of their high IQs) whose ranks have dwindled as a result of an ill-conceived mission that resulted in the bloody deaths of their comrades. The latest mission seems equally insane: to occupy an isolated French chateau near the German front and try to uncover information about a rumored Nazi offensive. It is mid-December, the snow is deep, and they have no reinforcements should they run into trouble.
The youthful and reluctant new leader of the squad, William Knott (affectionately dubbed "Won't"), who has refused to sew on his sergeant stripes as a subtle protest to the way in which he earned them, narrates the film. He characterizes the mood of the squad and alerts the audience that this will not be a typical World War II movie when he says, "I'm scared all the time now."
As Knott (Ethan Hawke) leads a search patrol on a high-risk trek through the snow-covered wooded countryside, he laments, "I'm having my usual trouble; noticing how beautiful the world is just when I may be leaving it." But the squad encounters an unexpected enemy. While sitting in the chateau, they hear the enemy outside singing and making jokes. Later, two of the Americans on guard duty are suddenly pelted with snowballs being fired from laughing Germans. The puzzled squad eventually track down the enemy in their hide-out but opt not to shoot at them.
"I know we could have killed those three guys and gotten away," Knott reflects. "I'm also sure they could have done the same thing to us last night. What I don't know in both cases is why it didn't happen." The answer, we soon learn, is that the German squad of young boys and old men have sensed the end of the war and are anxious to strike a deal whereby they could seemingly be captured after a staged battle to ensure their survival and subsequent safe release. Perhaps enhancing the message, the outcome is a tragic one that will linger long with the viewer.
There are some problems with the movie, including a lack of remorse for the killed enemy and the lack of justification for identifying the American squad as a group of geniuses, each with an IQ of higher than 150 (as if lesser intellects would be incapable of such feelings of humanity or of such second-guessing of military leadership).
But this film works on so many other levels that dwelling on such stumbles would be quibbling. Gordon's production offers rare compassion and understanding to characters so sensitively portrayed by Hawke, Kevin Dillon, Peter Berg, Arye Gross, Frank Whaley and Gary Sinise.