The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Memphis Belle

My favorite book, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, is a fictional account of American bombers in World War II flying over Italy, trying to survive the lunacy and craziness of war. It is an intensely funny story in its dark humor. At its base though, the story of the pilots and crews of the bombers and fighters is an incredibly heroic story, like it is documented in 1990's Memphis Belle.

It's May 1943 and World War II is very much still up for grabs. On a daily basis, hundreds of Allied planes fly over Europe -- especially France and Germany -- bombing key targets, but the daytime raids have produced heavy casualties. Among the crews of the Eighth Air Force is the Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber commanded by Capt. Dearborn (Matthew Modine) with co-pilot Luke Sinclair (Tate Donovan), navigator Phil Lowenthal (D.B. Sweeney) and bombardier Val Kozlowski (Billy Zane). The Belle has made it through 24 missions virtually unscathed and now sits one mission away from being rotated home. Army public relations (including smarmy John Lithgow) has caught wind of the remarkable story and plans to make national heroes out of the crew. The 25th mission awaits though, a heavily guarded factory deep in Germany in the city of Bremen. Can the Belle's luck hold out once more?

The reviews from critics and fans are fairly positive, but not quite as positive as I thought they'd be. I loved this movie. It is cliched at times and relies on some well-worn story points, but the cliches have to come from somewhere, right? Like so many of the best war movies, director Michael Caton-Jones doesn't glorify war and all its brutality. Instead, he glorifies the men who fought the war. What they did regardless of personal beliefs and convictions was heroic, putting their lives on the line. Add in the element of being so close to going home, and that heroism and fear is ratcheted up. Even in the mission, there are moments where Modine's Captain could basically save them all, but they continue on with the objective. They fight through their worries, concerns and fears, working together to accomplish something bigger than them.

I was somewhat surprised that the movie focuses exclusively on that last mission, the 25th, because I was expecting more of a tour of duty story. Glad I was wrong though because having the story take place over 24 hours is a stroke of genius. The tension, the impending doom, the possibility of failure keep 'Belle' moving at a lightning pace. Much of the last 2/3 of the movie is set entirely in the Belle, giving a claustrophobic, closed in feel. You feel like you're flying over Germany with the crew, almost willing the plane and crew to make it. Not surprisingly, the mission doesn't go off without a hitch. The tension is unbearable as the mission continues, right up until the ending. Is it ever really in doubt? Not really, but Caton-Jones does a great job of at least keeping you guessing. Credit to him for keeping the viewers on their toes. 

The ensemble cast here assembled is interesting because in 1990, these were a lot of rising stars. The catch? None of them ever became truly huge stars. The story at 106 minutes manages to give each member of the crew some much-needed characterization. It's not in-depth by any means, but we at least get a sense of who these men are. Modine, Donovan, Sweeney and Zane are nicely cast as the officers of the Belle. No one truly stands out because they're all just solid. That's a positive if it didn't come out that way. The crew includes Eric Stoltz (radioman), Sean Astin (ball turret), Harry Connick Jr. (tail gunner), Reed Diamond (nose gunner), and Courtney Gains and Neil Giuntoli as the waist gunners. Stoltz as the intellectual and Connick Jr. (even getting a chance to sing) stand out from the group. Also worth mentioning is David Strathairn as the group commander, making the most of a small part.

As far as war movies go, 'Belle' has a handful of truly powerful, moving sequences that make it memorable, rising above so many others. Connick Jr. sings Danny Boy quietly the night before the final mission to a silent hangar packed with people (watch it HERE). Riding out to the plane, the crew softly sings Amazing Grace to themselves. It could have been too artsy or pretentious, but it works. Arguing with Lithgow's PR officer, Strathairn reads letters he's received from the families of his pilots and crew members killed in action. The mission itself has too many moments like that, the feeling like you've been punched in your throat. It's the type of moments that make a good movie a great one.  You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube.

Memphis Belle <---trailer (1990): ****/****

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