TERRENCE MALICK FOR THE THIN RED LINE (1998)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Steven Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan
John Madden for Shakespeare in Love
Peter Weir for The Truman Show
Roberto Benigni for Life Is Beautiful
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
Whew, dashing this off during a break before the last half hour of Traffic—just in time to bolt out the door! As my word choice probably indicates, these will be pretty quick and instinctive posts, but I’ll do what I can to do justice to both films!
The principal sacrifice I made in setting my June 7th deadline for this Best Director project was passing up the chance to see The Thin Red Line on the big screen. Watching the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray on a 65-inch screen was a pretty decent substitute, but I regret that my first trip to one of his transcendental cinematic planets could not be in the dark asylum of a movie theater. From the very first shot of an alligator gliding into the scummy pond, Malick captures a lyricism that somehow has eluded every filmmaker before or since. Much credit goes to the brilliant cinematography of John Toll (on a hot streak after back-to-back wins for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart, but the fact remains that Malick has managed to elicit the same kind of magical aesthetic with three generations of collaborators–even the bombastic Hans Zimmer‘s is tamed by his pacific outlook. The film is ultimately a testament to an immaculate directorial vision for the ages.
What I admired the most about the film was Malick’s ability to locate grace and beauty inside the most antithetical enduring part of society: warfare. I was reminded throughout the film of my recent viewing of King Vidor’s uneven War and Peace, in which Tolstoy’s profound blend of philosophy and imagery was stratified into a stilted plot and rapturously eloquent visuals. Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel achieves this fusion almost effortlessly, adopting a narrative style that floats in and out of the consciousness of the American officers and soldiers sent to take the island of Guadalcanal. Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, and Paul Brincat’s ethereal sound work helps to beautifully sculpt the metaphysical space of Malick’s roving eye, but the real key to this feat is in the editing (another trio: Billy Weber, Leslie Jones, and Saar Klein), who surely labored with the director to make the cuts between the mind and physical reality blur together, each new shot capturing traces of the movement or colors of the previous shots. I could go on and on about the universe of this film, but suffice it to say this is, along with Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, one of two supreme works of cinema I’ve seen over the course of this project. The short version is that I can now say, whether encountering it on the screen or small, the film was a transporting experience.
The 1998 Best Picture race always amused me as the height of unimaginative voting, pitting three World War II films against two Shakespearean costume dramas. The Best Director race varied things a little, swapping out Elizabeth’s Shekhar Kapur for Peter Weir’s intelligent satire The Truman Show, bringing the Tudor count down to one with John Madden’s frothy Shakespeare in Love. Still, the remaining three war films showcasing the surprising contest between Malick’s, Steven Spielberg’s, and Roberto Benigni’s visions of the war, and an indication of how misleading these first-glance looks at the race can be. Where Spielberg and Benigni opt for different degrees of sentimentality in the victorious Saving Private Ryan and the clever but ultimately reprehensible Life Is Beautiful, my vote goes to Malick for his staunchly beautiful contemplation of war and humanity.