War - What Is It Good For?
There have been lots of movies made about the travesty of war, some great, some not so great but very few manage to balance the message they are trying to deliver with a decent storyline without spoiling the movies overall feeling with being purely a political statement. "The War" starring Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood manages to achieve that fine balance, admirably delivering a message about the destructive nature of war on family life whilst also charming the audience with a tale about two children and their own battles.
It's the summer of 1970, and Stu Simmons (Elijah Wood - Forever Young) along with his sister Lidia (Lexi Randall) and their friends, are spending their time building a tree house, in an attempt to escape the daily drudgery of their poor family life in the deep Mississippi. Their father, Stephen (Kevin Costner - Wyatt Earp) is equally struggling to come to terms with being ridiculed as poor white trash as well as the trauma from what he witnessed while serving in Vietnam. As Stephen struggles to come to terms with everything, Stu and Lidia have their own war to deal with, as the local roughnecks, the Lipnicks, want to steal their tree house.
The storyline to "The War" is a multi-layered experience with different elements seamlessly blending into each other with a constant theme about war tying them cleverly together. The first of these storylines focuses on that of Vietnam veteran Stephen Simmons and his struggles with life after the war, as not only is he struggling with the trauma of what he witnessed but also coming back to family life where money is short and jobs are hard to come by. This element to the movie provides the basis for the whole movie as everything ties into Stephen's story, but it is the sensitive way that this element is dealt with which for me makes "The War" so good. Instead of making the character of Stephen a bitter man who feels he is owed for his time in the forces, he is a very peaceful man, having become that way after witnessing war at its destructive worst.
One of the finest moments in "The War" is the scene when Stephen is explaining what it is like to be on the frontline to his son Stu, a beautifully choreographed scene which combines dramatic war scenes with a touching piece of dialogue. The relationship between Stephen and Stu is another strong element which makes up the story, as you get a real strong bond between the two as Stu idolises his father despite his shortfalls since returning from war. There are some great scenes in this movie where Stephen and Stu really bond, usually where Stephen has to teach his son what is right and wrong.
The third and probably most significant elements to the plot is the storyline around Stu, his sister and friends as they spend a summer building a tree house and battling with the children of the local roughnecks. In an attempt to bring the lesson of war down to a situation that those of us who have never been on the frontline can appreciate, we see the destructive nature of a child's battle get out of hand.
For me the way "The War" manages to deliver its message through each of these interlinked scenarios without being completely in your face is first class and is with out doubt down to a brilliant story and some expert directing. If I was to find fault with the storyline, it is in the penultimate scene which sees the children stage an all out battle with each other using weapons which Stephen brought back from the war. In some ways it is a little over the top, especially if you sit and analyse the movie, but in relation to the story and message I feel that is justified and works well.
When it comes to the acting in "The War" I have to admit it is brilliant, a fact I struggle with as it stars Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood, two actors who I honestly feel are over rated. At just the tender age of 13 Elijah Wood puts in a performance as Stu which for me surpasses nearly everything he has done since. You honestly forget that you are watching an actor but become immersed in this child's life and all of his battles. In some ways Woods performance reminds me of a young River Phoenix in "Stand By Me" and the way the movie is made leads to some comparisons between the two movies. Costner (Message in a Bottle) again puts in a performance unexpected of an actor who I often feel tries to steal the show when ever he can, but in the case of "The War" he puts in a much quieter performance one which is in tune with his character. Like with Wood, you forget that you are watching a highly paid actor and become involved in this mans own turmoil's.
Whilst there are numerous other top performances from the likes of Mare Winningham as Stu's mother Lois, and Lexi Randall as Lidia Joanne Simmons, the movie belongs to the performances of Elijah Wood and Kevin Costner. Of course the performances are not everything, and all the characters from the Lipnicks through to Lidia's soul singing friends add a lot of charm and depth to this movie.
The main reason I was initially attracted to watch this movie was due to Jon Avnet being at the helm as director. When I first watched this I had also just seen his previous outing as director, the brilliant "Fried Green Tomatoes" and this kept up the momentum. Avnet not only manages to bring the storyline to life but he also captures the period and setting of the movie perfectly. The whole movie has a very autumnal feel to it and that combined with a soundtrack which heavily features soul music makes for a surprisingly relaxing viewing experience. My only criticism of him as a director would be the previously mentioned penultimate scene which although I feel is justified may have been worked to better effect.
What this all boils down to is that "The War" is still as charming as when I first watched it but despite it's age hasn't lost any of its impact with its message. The whole movie, from plot, acting, directing and soundtrack all work brilliantly together, but most importantly it manages to deliver a message whilst not detracting from what is a very engrossing drama. Maybe it's not a movie I would recommend watching more than once, although I must admit I have probably watched it more than a handful of times since it's release, it is still a very good movie which will not only touch the hearts of those who watch it but will also make them think about war and it's destructive nature on a more domestic front.