I dearly wish Keith Gordon were given the money to make a movie every two years, or at whatever pace he’s comfortable with. He has proven himself one of the more fascinating and adult indie filmmakers out there, and yet he has only directed five features in eighteen years. Meanwhile, baboons like Michael Bay and Brett Ratner get handed the keys to the kingdom again and again. Life is terrible.
From his debut (1990’s The Chocolate War) to his last feature (2005’s The Singing Detective), Gordon has shown no interest whatsoever in going in for the big cash grab. He digs into the rich meat of human complexity, and he did such a brilliant job with Mother Night (1996) that he and only he should be entrusted with any future Kurt Vonnegut adaptations. Gordon’s best-known film — sadly, due more to its rising-star cast than to its innate qualities — is probably A Midnight Clear, a mournful World War II fable based on a novel by William Wharton (Birdy).
The movie is set in the stark snowscapes of France in 1944, and men waddle around wearing uniforms and helmets, but this isn’t really a “war film.” It’s not even really an anti-war film, though Gordon has described it as such; it goes beyond that. Most anti-war films bemoan the stupidity of the military machine, man’s inhumanity to man, etc., and leave it at that. A Midnight Clear proposes an alternative. It acknowledges war as a fact, but embraces pacifism.
The film is narrated by Will Knott (Ethan Hawke), who is part of a platoon of soldiers with IQs of at least 150. They started with twelve men; now they’re down to six. Fat lot of good their intelligence did them. They’ve been assigned to keep an eye out for “enemy activity” near an abandoned mansion. There isn’t any enemy activity, though there are some German soldiers nearby — not Nazis, as they later take pains to point out, but regular army guys. These Germans, a mix of tired old-timers and scared-shitless kids, couldn’t care less about the purity of the race or the triumph of the will. They just want to go home, be with their wives and kids, and try to move on. They know the war’s almost over, and they really don’t want to die just because they happened to be born in Germany.
Gordon and cinematographer Tom Richmond find ethereal beauty in the wintry forests of France (actually Utah). The Americans, including the troubled Mother (Gary Sinise), the sardonic Shutzer (Arye Gross), and the gentle Father (Frank Whaley), shiver against the cold in more ways than one. Hell is hell, no matter the climate. Yet this is still a place where an American soldier and a German soldier are found dead, literally frozen to each other in a final death-lock, an image of Joycean impact. The snow falls upon the living and the dead. The Americans huddle together in the mansion, waiting for something to happen, not wanting anything to happen. “We wait,” the quietly economical narration tells us. “There’s nothing else we can do.”
Cautiously, the Americans and the Germans enter into a common zone of humanity. They sing Christmas carols, each in their own language. Even Shutzer, the Jewish soldier who had talked about wanting to bag his first Nazi, warms to the Germans — indeed, he’s the main interpreter. Without consulting Mother, who’s been a bit off in the head since learning of the death of his newborn boy back home, the Americans agree to conduct a fake skirmish with the Germans. The idea is to expend a lot of shells and make a lot of noise before “capturing” the Germans, so that there’ll be no reprisals for the Germans’ families (the Germans fear dishonor if they merely surrender).
But things aren’t that simple in war and in the film. A Midnight Clear is a sort of “Christmas miracle” film, though far more haunting and tragic than your typical Hallmark TV-movie. It also won’t stand up to logical interrogation; it gets heavily symbolic, particularly when a fallen soldier is washed, like Christ, by his surviving buddies. For all that, though, it’s moving and intelligently crafted, and it makes emotional sense. There are really no villains here — even the asshole major (John C. McGinley) falls short of being a true monster á la George Macready in Paths of Glory; we can see the absurd pressure he’s under. And there’s a great small performance by Larry Joshua as a lieutenant who seems rougher and less sensitive than the soldiers but whose eyes express a sad sympathy for them.
Like Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut, William Wharton served in World War II (he died this past October at 82), and his story stands as a cold corrective to all the “greatest generation/good war” hype. All three men, actually, simply said “We were kids, and we were there at the time, and we didn’t have much choice.” Keith Gordon, born in 1961, brings that sensibility to the screen with grace and delicacy.