Last night I watched 2002's Hart's War again. This was Farrell's second major American release and his third after a breakthrough performance in Tigerland, which like the Jesse James film, American Outlaws, that followed featured him in full loose-cannon mode. Hart's War was a departure, as was Minority Report, the one that came next. These were movies that focused on a more subdued Farrell. At the start of his career, every name director wanted to work with Farrell, and he was expected to become a big star. Except audiences never warmed to him, and critics found it about as easy as everyone else. He had a rare moment, in full Irish mode, when he won a Golden Globe for In Bruges, but then everyone forgot about him again.
I've always found that impossible. I have my favorite Colin Farrell movies, but Hart's War has never really been one of them. That doesn't mean it's easy to forget. In fact, it can be downright infuriating. He's so subdued in it, you'd hardly know he's the lead. Top-billed but in fact supporting player Bruce Willis had by that point in his career become well-known for subdued performances after a frenzied early popularity in action roles, which he works to perfect effect again. Third lead Terrence Howard may actually be the best way to sell Hart's War to skeptics. Like Farrell, Howard has had a tough time of keeping audiences engaged. Luckily he's done the trick again with the surprise breakout hit Empire on TV. He's at his best here.
The basic plot of the movie goes like this: Farrell is an officer in the fringes of the European theater during WWII thanks to the fact that his father is a United States senator. On a lark he acts as a driver for a comrade, but ends up falling into the clutches of the Nazis, and is sent to a prison camp, where Bruce Willis is commanding officer of those being held there. Early on the drama concerns whether or not Farrell broke down during interrogation and gave the enemy information. Yet it soon becomes apparent that there's more going on than meets the eye.
I think the main thing that doomed Hart's War was its ambition. The more expansive view of the film is that it is in fact a moral indictment of America. In that sense it may actually be more relevant now than thirteen years ago. Although clearly understood to be an army following the wishes of a monster today, Nazis at that time were perhaps better understood merely to be German, the soldiers of the opposing side. Putting aside how many Americans actually agreed with the idea of eugenics, and how incredibly reluctant the country was to enter the war (and how today we view service in WWII as evidence of the so-called Greatest Generation, as close to a true golden age the country has ever seen), Hart's War is a study of ambiguity. The enemy actually has more respect than many of America's own countrymen.
This is to say, blacks. The prison camp has Americans separated from Russians by a barb wire-tipped fence. Willis does his best to stay out of trouble, but tries to insist the harsh treatment the Russians receive is something Americans wouldn't being doing. The camp commandant, the fourth lead, a chillingly calm individual who may be the most civilized of the lot, engages in a mental standoff with Willis through the film. In many ways, Hart's War is a post-Western, not only in spirit but in depicting its time period as such, the end of an old world once and for all, when it became far harder to hide somewhere in the wilderness to escape your problems. This prison camp is in the wilderness, a fact emphasized in the dramatic pullout shot at the end of the film, when it is finally seen outside the bleak landscape of winter.
Howard's best scene comes when he makes it obvious how German prisoners of war in the States receive far more dignity than natives, which is to say blacks, such as himself. His whole presence is filled with outrage, but he tries his best to conduct himself with more tact than those around him, who are all tip-toeing around how they have been cheating on their acknowledgment of basic humanity. Everyone wants to get some advantage. Farrell is paralyzed by his awareness of privilege, until he realizes that Howard deserves legal defense after being framed for murder. Suddenly he has no privilege except what's given him.
And everyone has something to hide, too. Willis has been building a tunnel so that a munitions plant that has been mislabeled and thus overlooked by his superiors can be eliminated. He allows the whole sequence of events to unfold in order to buy himself time. By the time Farrell shares Howard's outrage, it seems too late for Willis to care about Howard's plight anymore than the jaded commandant. This is a movie that allows us to see a Nazi as something other than a Nazi, which is not to say in a positive light, but at least as a man whose motives, although as twisted as everyone else's, can sometimes be trusted. He is not just a Nazi. This is another thing Farrell realizes, another thing that makes his path so difficult to walk. Tellingly, Farrell's character is early given damaged feet that must be looked after by a series of benefactors.
(Hey, this might be a good chance to plug another Farrell movie, The Way Back, in which he's once again a rogue. A Russian, by the way.)
I don't think Hart's War is as bold as it could have been, but it is infinitely compelling. And yes, hard to forget, even as Farrell recedes into the background, as he sometimes does, allowing the movie around him to breathe, as it were. If he's your reason to watch, initially, like me, I guess the disappointment that has always greeted it probably is warranted. Yet it's also the first time Farrell finds a new way to present himself. He's a unique chameleon. Most of the time an actor thinks this means putting on an accent or some cosmetic alteration. Farrell has consistently demonstrated an ability to change personalities entirely. Yet there's always that uncertainty about him. Maybe that's the problem audiences have with him, and maybe his breakout with have to be in something as obvious as a spy thriller, not as a novice (he did that in The Recruit) but as an experienced agent (to date, Miami Vice comes closest). The more years he has on him the better, then. Which means the best is yet to come.
In the meantime, revisiting his older material remains a satisfying past-time. Especially when it's something like Hart's War.