Picks and Pans Review: Memphis Belle

updated 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/29/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz

Based on the story of a real World War II bomber crew (see page 50), Memphis Belle keeps your interest, telling its tale with the requisite blood, sweat and explosions. It is, however, far from the classic combat drama it might have been.

For one thing, director Michael (Scandal) Caton-Jones and writer Monte (Staying Together) Merrick buy into way too many war-movie clichés.

There's the stereotypically polyglot crew—the assemblage of loudmouth, virgin, farmer, poet and hustler lacks only a Brooklynite babbling about the Dodgers. There's the right-off-the-late-show script: Modine, the bombers pilot, tells his crew, "I know you're scared. We're all scared."

Crucially, there is the conceit that all American fighting men in World War II were swell guys. Sure, they brag and tease and sulk, but at heart, the Memphis Belle's crew and all the airmen in this movie are sweethearts, a kind of foolish distortion that was reasonable in films made during the war itself but now just drains credibility. (The only negative character is an Army publicity officer out to exploit the crew. His rampant insensitivity is overwritten and overplayed by John Lithgow.)

Nor does Caton-Jones provide the visual and aural details that could enhance the audience's sense of being in the B-17 with Mo-dine and his men during the film's climax—the crew's 25th bombing mission (25 missions being the equivalent of a ticket home). The aerial shots of the B-17 squadron in flight are impressive—the chunky B-17 had an odd aesthetic appeal, an elegance of strength. The interiors, though, are routinely done and unnecessarily confusing. Gunner Sean Astin's turret keeps getting stuck, for instance, but the scenes are so disorienting it's not clear what's happening.

What is involving is the actors' ability to reflect what wars do to the mostly young men who fight them. Modine, as the straight-arrow pilot, seems to almost tremble with the effort to hold in his fear and maintain an all-business tone. Stoltz, as the plane's crew chief, is stuck with the dreamy poet's role. But he can be a subtle actor, and he suggests how overwhelming war can be to a young man who has never done anything of consequence before—and knows his life will never seem as intense again.

Of the other crew members, Tate Donovan as the free-spirited co-pilot and Courtney Gains as the superstitious waist gunner are most memorable. Singer-pianist Harry Connick Jr. demonstrates a drawly charm as the tail gunner. (He also sings "Danny Boy" in a painfully artificial scene.)

Because of this film's publicity push, the ending, with Modine and Donovan nursing their shot-up plane in for a landing, loses its tension. Since we know what will happen, rooting for the Belle to come in safely is like rooting for Bobby Thomson to hit a three-run homer when you're watching a film of the 1951 Dodgers-Giants playoff.

The ending is briefly satisfying, but you come away feeling you didn't learn as much as you might have. (PG-13)

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