Based on its marketing, "Hart's War" appears to be a run-of-the-mill World War 2 prisoner-of-war film in the vein of "The Great Escape", albeit with the injection of the dazzling pyrotechnics expected by the "Pearl Harbor" generation. However, in actual fact, "Hart's War", like the John Katzenbach novel it is based on, is a morally complex and intricately plotted courtroom drama that explores how racism in American society undermined the noble struggle against Nazi tyranny, à la "To Kill a Mockingbird". And though the film starts off slowly and presents the usual 'war porn' imagery that has become commonplace these days (such as in "Black Hawk Down"), it truly distinguishes itself in the second half with some surprising developments that uproot audience preconceptions and expectations.
It is December 1944 and the Allies are advancing through Europe. Standing in for Atticus Finch is Lieutenant Tommy Hart (Colin Farrell of "Tigerland"), a recent addition to Stalag VIA, where hundreds of American POWs are always under the watchful eye of SS Major Wilhelm Visser (Marcel Iures of "The Peacemaker") and his guards, and kept in line by Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis of "Bandits"). Trouble brews with the arrival of two captured pilots, Lts. Lincoln Scott (Terrence Dashon Howard of "Angel Eyes") and Lamar Archer (Vicellous Reon Shannon of "The Hurricane"). Because they are black, they are immediately singled out by a number of the white prisoners, including the camp's wheeler-and-dealer Staff Sgt. Vic W. Bedford (Cole Hauser of "Pitch Black"), who makes it very clear that he does not like bunking with 'their kind'.
After Bedford is found murdered with Scott standing over his body, McNamara asks Visser to allow him to conduct a court martial hearing to establish Scott's guilt in what appears to be a racially motivated crime. Visser grants the request and allows McNamara to hold his tribunal in the camp's theatre, which he finds amusingly appropriate. Given his background as a law student prior to the war, Hart is assigned as Scott's legal representation. Unfortunately, it becomes quickly apparent that Scott is being railroaded, with his guilt being a foregone conclusion. In addition to the stain of racism during the proceedings, McNamara makes no effort to hide his bias, including his dislike for Hart, whom he suspects of having buckled under Nazi interrogation. However, Hart finds an unlikely ally in Visser, who takes an unexpectedly active interest in the case, even to the point of providing him with the necessary resources to mount a decent defense for Scott.
Those expecting larger-than-life battle sequences from "Hart's War" will likely be disappointed, as it is more of a police procedural and courtroom drama. Thankfully, the mystery being investigated by Hart is compelling and rife with intrigue, especially as it gradually becomes clear that the agendas of the story's key players, McNamara and Visser, are not as straightforward as they appear, and the resolution will not be as clear-cut. The film's second half is particularly fascinating, with a number of great 'a-ha!' moments. One such moment comes when Hart has his client's alibi used against him -- an alibi that he and Scott agreed to in order to prevent the Germans from learning how POWs are able to sneak out of the barracks at night. Another great moment when Hart makes an unexpected discovery that sheds light on why Bedford was killed and the true motives behind McNamara's tribunal.
However, the most interesting aspect of "Hart's War" is how the film confronts racism head-on. Of particular note is how it illustrates the inherent hypocrisy of the American POWs by placing the discrimination of the black soldiers against the backdrop of the Allied war effort, a point that is not lost on Visser, who seems to relish the glaring contradiction. Though some viewers might find it distasteful to actually find themselves agreeing with a Nazi character, the point being made is not, and it injects some welcome moral ambiguity in what could have been another run-of-the-mill war drama.
Backing up the clever script is a collection of strong performances. Farrell, who seems to have more than a passing resemblance to Russell Crowe ("A Beautiful Mind"), is good as the conflicted yet determined Hart. Willis, who gets star billing, is credible as the unshakeable leader of the POWs, while Iures manages to be somewhat sympathetic as the camp's calculating commandant. Finally, Howard is credible as the accused officer, and is able to give his persecuted character a dignified voice without sounding preachy.
Since cutting his teeth in television, director Gregory Hoblit's artistry has been growing by leaps and bounds. After dubious starts with "Primal Fear" and "Fallen", he showed some promise with the time-travel thriller "Frequency", and now illustrates his ability to handle complex and hard-hitting material with "Hart's War". A blend of war film, POW action, and courtroom drama, "Hart's War" is an unexpected pleasure amidst the usual drivel that dominates the February box office.