At War With Ourselves

While "Black Hawk Down" hangs on at the top of the box-office charts, the war movies keep coming. Soon we'll have Mel Gibson's Vietnam drama "We Were Soldiers." And now we get a POW drama, "Hart's War," set in a German stalag during World War II. But the film's only secondarily concerned with our war against the Nazis. It's the war going on between the American prisoners--pitting two black soldiers against their racist comrades in arms--that gives this movie its edge. It's a subject Hollywood had shied away from for decades and, even now, amid all the "Greatest Generation" salutes, one that gets swept aside: how segregated our armed forces once were.

The title character is a young officer (Colin Farrell) assigned the job of defending a black lieutenant (Terrence Howard) charged with murdering his fellow prisoner, a racist staff sergeant (Cole Hauser). Hart has been handpicked for the job by Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), the highest-ranking officer in the stalag. The camp's erudite Kommandant (Marcel Iures) agrees to let the Americans conduct this trial. McNamara, who acts as prosecutor, has his own hidden agenda for staging the trial, which has nothing to do with justice.

"Hart's War," as you might guess, can get too earnest for its own good. But Billy Ray and Terry George's screenplay, taken from a John Katzenbach novel, is expertly plotted: just when you think you know which way the story is going to zig, it zags off in a surprising direction. Director Gregory Hoblit ("Primal Fear," "Frequency") is a real pro: his action sequences are crisp, and he builds his drama brick by brick, so that everything falls into place. These days, good old-fashioned craftsmanship is nothing to sneeze at.

Willis, as he did in "Bandits," proves himself a generous team player: he doesn't have the flashiest role, but his steely authority anchors the movie. Farrell, who made a sexy debut in "Tigerland," displays a supple, appealing mix of weakness and strength. And it's about time the charismatic Howard got a meaty Hollywood role (he was the scene-stealing rake in "The Best Man"). The movie doesn't quite know when to quit--the ending is way over the top, with too many characters falling over each other to make noble sacrifices. But you don't leave hungry: this is solid, steak-and-potatoes moviemaking.