To a post-Vietnam War generation put off by militarism, David Puttnam's inspiring account of the final and most-harrowing WWII mission of the B-17 bomber The Memphis Belle may seem hopelessly dated, but older viewers are likely to find much to enjoy in the film. Produced by Puttnam and Catherine Wyler (whose father, legendary filmmaker William Wyler, made a much-acclaimed wartime documentary about The Memphis Belle) and directed by Michael Caton-Jones (SCANDAL), MEMPHIS BELLE is a grand reminder of an era when American ideals were less tarnished and when Americans seemed somehow nobler than today. Though flawed (especially during its ponderous beginning), the film blossoms into a deeply involving, visually stunning powerhouse of a movie.
As a result of Caton-Jones' assured direction, no single actor stands out as the film's star; every performance is on target. John Lithgow's Col. Bruce Derringer is perhaps the film's most colorful character, but it may be that more attention is drawn to him because he is the only major character who is not a member of the crew of The Memphis Belle. Instead, he is excellent as the Army PR officer who is less concerned with the outcome of the bomber's final mission than he is with the Stateside impact of the young heroes he has helped to create. Quietly effective are the 10 young actors who
portray the crew of The Memphis Belle. Because their deceptively subtle ensemble performances are so seamless, it is the suspense of the dangerous mission rather than any one character that captivates the audience. Matthew Modine is Dennis Dearborn, the Belle's pilot; Tate Donovan is co-pilot Luke Sinclair, who is more concerned with challenging Dearborn's decisions than he is with performing his own job. Eric Stoltz is radio operator Danny Daly, a likable redhead who almost loses his life over Germany. When Danny is seriously wounded, the self-avowed medical wizardry of Billy Zane's
bombardier is put to a pressure-filled test. Courtney Gains and Neil Giuntoli provide some of the film's most wrenching moments as a pair of waist gunners, one a religious zealot, the other a cynical atheist. Equally impressive are Sean Astin and Harry Connick, Jr., as the ball-turret gunner and tail gunner, respectively. Rounding out the Belle's crew are Reed Edward Diamond as flight engineer Virgil and D.B. Sweeney as Phil Rosenthal, the navigator. David Strathairn, as the sqaudron's commanding officer, also has a memorable moment at the climax when his voice is heard over the closing credits reading the names of the men who didn't make it back.
Much credit must be given to Richard Conway's dazzling special aerial effects, to David Watkin's breathtaking aerial photography, and George Fenton's evocative score. Jim Clark's editing also deserves mention, though his abrupt cutting between action scenes on the ground is not nearly as effective as his skillful handling of the suspenseful final mission. Caton-Jones does a craftsmanlike job of enlivening the Monte Merrick screenplay, deftly drawing the audience into the events unfolding for the crew of The Memphis Belle. Viewed out of context, some of the film's scenes might appear to be
suffused in cliche-ridden Hollywood sentimentalism, but when taken as a whole MEMPHIS BELLE is an extremely touching film. Only by allowing the film to develop as a whole will viewers be able to appreciate the sincerity of such scenes as the charming encounter between a young airman and a local farmer. Although he is terribly anxious about the dangerous upcoming mission, the farmboy-turned-flyboy spends his last hours on the ground unselfishly repairing the farmer's harvester. It is quiet moments like this one, as well the thrilling final mission, that make MEMPHIS BELLE a very special
film indeed. (Profanity, adult situations, violence.)
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