Just because a movie was inspired by real life and has good intentions doesn't mean it can't wind up as phony as a three-dollar bill. "Hart's War" is a courtroom thriller, set in a World War II POW camp, that begins as if it were destined for greatness - or at least goodness - and abruptly flops into slap-happy, cliche-riddled absurdity. It's as if the writers were suddenly seized with a desire to concoct a wild mix of "A Soldier's Story," "The Great Escape" and "Hogan's Heroes," while adopting the lofty moral tone of "The Greatest Generation."
"Hart's War" is the tangled tale of Lt. Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell), a decent, idealistic but initially fragile law student from Yale who finds himself alienated from most of his fellow Yank prisoners and caught in a moral swamp after he's assigned as defense lawyer in a bizarre prisoner-run POW camp trial in the waning weeks of the war.
Defending Lt. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard), a black Tuskegee pilot falsely accused of murdering a bigoted fellow American prisoner, Hart battles before a prisoner's court-martial that may have been rigged by either the stalag's ranking U.S. officer, leathery-tough Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis), or by its urbane Nazi commandant, Col. Werner Visser (Marcel Iures).
In the beginning, amid icy landscapes and dicor, we see the vulnerable-looking Hart falling into a German trap. Then we see him broken under German interrogation and sent to an overcrowded POW camp, a cold fortress of barbed wire, comfortless barracks and raking searchlights.
The first and best sections of "Hart's War" suggest, deceptively, a movie with a sense of history and a strong social conscience. In the scene where Hart arrives at the camp, in a terrifyingly crowded freight train that deliberately evokes the transits to Dachau or Buchenwald, there's a feeling of depth and high drama. Farrell, who played the Texan trickster in Joel Schumacher's neglected Vietnam drama "Tigerland," is an empathetic actor who can let us "feel his pain" - and at first, his pain has dramatic validity. It comes from his harsh dismissal by camp boss McNamara, who boots Hart into the enlisted men's quarters. And it comes as well from Hart's mean intro to "Trader" Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser, another "Tigerland" vet), a nasty guy who hordes and barters goodies like William Holden's sharpie Sefton in "Stalag 17."
Hart's bad welcome is a valentine compared with the vicious reception accorded the two black lieutenants, Scott (Howard) and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon), after McNamara quarters them in the same barracks. Implacably racist, Bedford subjects the pair to epithets, taunts, dirty tricks and a frame-up for a capital crime. When Bedford is killed - and Scott accused - the mysteries begin, and the promise of the film is mostly past. As "Hart's War" keeps delivering one indigestible twist after another, it also loses it grip on our emotions.
Everything good about "Hart's War" - its convincing re-creation of POW life, its fervid speeches by lawyer Hart and defendant Scott, its flavorful direction by Gregory Hoblit, and its one brilliant performance, by Iures as the super-sophisticated and weirdly sympathetic Col. Visser (and even some good moments by Willis in his movie-icon role as nervy, iron-fisted McNamara) - tends to fade in its crazy last act.
The source for "Hart's War" is a novel by John Katzenbach, a mystery writer and the son of former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The elder Katzenbach, a major figure in the '60s Civil Rights conflicts, was a POW himself in 1942 and 1943, and his camp experiences are what give his son's contrived story its measure of realism and good set-up. In fact, if you walked out of this movie halfway through, you might think you'd seen half of a solid film. Even then, though, you might have qualms about the fact that the movie's black hero is given the name "Lincoln Scott" (after The Great Emancipator and Dred Scott?) and that the often wily Terrence Howard ("The Best Man" and TV's "Boycott") plays him as such a self-effacingly noble figure. Katzenbach's book collapses into phoniness at the end, and the movie - which alters that ending - is even phonier.
As for the always notable Iures, the lean, sad-eyed Romanian actor who's had roles in "The Oak," "Mission Impossible" and "The Peacemaker," he's quite moving here: a sophisticated monster with a dark, vulnerable heart. His character is an interesting one: a witty Americanophile who loves Mark Twain and jazz (his collection of 78s boasts Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Sidney Bechet) and who secretly helps Hart during the trial. Does this strange partisanship come from a streak of liberalism or from a crush he has on Hart? Perhaps both. Iures plays with such subtlety and skill that he suggests a different, better movie.
The people making "Hart's War" want to wring our emotions, make our hearts pump. And they might have if they'd junked more of the book and maintained that early air of high moral seriousness and gritty realism up through the bad last half-hour.
False nobility and ersatz heroism ooze out of that last act, which also piles on so much schmaltzy self-sacrifice that you almost expect a heavenly choir to show up chanting "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful" or perhaps "Mood Indigo." By then, though, "Hart's War" has already been lost.
2 1/2 stars
Directed by Gregory Hoblit; written by Billy Ray, Terry George, based on the novel by John Katzenbach; photographed by Alan Kivilo; edited by David Rosenbloom; production designed by Lilly Kilvert; music by Rachel Portman; produced by Hoblit, Arnold Rifkin. An MGM release; opens Friday, Feb. 15. Running time: 2:08. MPAA rating: R (some strong war violence and language).
Col. William A. McNamara - Bruce Willis
Lt. Thomas V. Hart - Colin Farrell
Lt. Lincoln A Scott - Terrence Howard
Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford - Cole Hauser
Col. Werner Visser - Marcel Iures Capt. Peter A. Ross - Linus Roache
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.