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A Midnight Clear
Most Christmas movies are light-hearted fare that warms the soul and brings the family together for a few hours during the hectic holiday season. If that's what you want this weekend, check out my list of great movies in the WaffleMovies.com Classics section. When I started thinking about great Christmas films for this weekend, these were the movies that I intended to bring to you. However, I ran across this gem that deserves your attention.
Made before Saving Private Ryan and based on the William Wharton novel, A Midnight Clear is a powerful look at World War II that strips away the glorious view we have of "the last good war." Part M*A*S*H and part Platoon, it's a great film that questions the intentions of military commanders and sympathizes with the lower ranking soldiers who just want to go home.
Ethan Hawke stars as Will Knott, the leader of an intelligence unit located on the French-German border during Christmas week 1944. The unit has been decimated and reduced from twelve men to six due to casualties. Even Knott knows he is in charge only because many ahead of him in the chain of command have been killed.
He heads up a motley crew of the best and brightest the U.S. Army has to offer. He explains that the men scored very high on intelligence tests, so they were placed in this unit where brains are needed. They are smart enough to realize that the Commander in charge of the squadron, Major Griffin (John C. McGinley) is a power hungry, glory seeking, ambitious idiot who has his own interests in mind. This is evidenced in the high number of casualties Griffin is responsible for, but he does not feel any guilt about it.
Knott is extremely concerned about the spiritual leader of the group, Vance "Mother" Wilkins (Gary Sinise). He has earned the moniker due to his advanced age and habit of taking care of the younger soldiers. Now, he is need of their help.
Mother has just learned that his new baby has not survived childbirth, which has caused him to go off the deep end. Knott doesn't want Mother to be sent home and disgraced by a Section 8 dismissal for metal incompetence, so he keeps Mother's condition a secret.
The group is ordered to take control of a small farmhouse in the woods. The property might be located just over the German border, but Griffin wants to use the home as a reconnaissance base to gather information about the Germans before his reinforcements arrive for the next offensive.
Reluctant to take on such a dangerous mission near Christmas, Knott leads his crew into the woods. When they arrive at the farmhouse, they discover a feast of fine wine and culinary delights along with mattresses and silk sheets. Since they have risked their necks, the six decide to enjoy the bounty. Soon, they are approached by their Nazi counterparts.
Instead of seeking a battle, the Nazis want to surrender. The unit has just returned from the Russian front, learned about an impending Nazi offensive and chosen to surrender since the war is almost over anyway.
Do the Nazis want to surrender or is this a set up? Will Knott and his gang be able to pull off the surrender in a way that makes Mother look like a hero who should be sent home for bravery?
Keith Gordon's script is one of the first to examine the human side of soldiers during World War II. While many feel Saving Private Ryan was the first film to take a harsh look at the war, A Midnight Clear was ahead of its time, but did not have the drawing power of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. It also came out on the heels of America's renewed patriotism spurred by success in Operation Desert Storm. In some ways, A Midnight Clear was a victim of circumstance and timing.
The cast doesn't have a weakness. Sinise is fantastic as Mother, and Kevin Dillon puts in a strong performance as Mel Avakian, a naysayer who should be in charge of the unit. Arye Gross does a fine job as Stan Shutzer, the Jewish soldier who works as an interpreter between the U.S. group and Nazis.
If you liked Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line, check out their predecessor, A Midnight Clear.
Directed and written by Keith Gordon
Ethan Hawke .. Will Knott
Frank Whaley . Father Mundy
Peter Berg .. Bud Miller
Kevin Dillon .... Mel Avakian
Arye Gross . Stan Shutzer
John C. McGinley ... Major Griffin
Larry Joshua ....Lt. Ware
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