`Clear' And Present Danger

XXX "A Midnight Clear," with Ethan Hawke, Peter Berg. Written and directed by Keith Gordon. City Centre, Overlake Cinemas. "R" - Restricted, due to violence, strong language. --------------------------------------------------------------- The time: the final winter of World War II.

The setting: the Ardennes Forest on the French/Belgian border.

Six young American soldiers of the Infantry and Reconnaissance Squad are posted to an abandoned villa near the front, where a final German assault is expected at any moment. As soon as they leave base camp, however, the drudgery of their war starts to acquire a surreal note.

The first indication: a pair of soldiers, both dead, both frozen stiff, embracing each other in the middle of a snowy country road. One is German and one is American. Who stood them there, and why, is a mystery the I&R Squad has to unravel.

On that intriguing note, writer-director Keith Gordon ("The Chocolate War") gets this ensemble piece off to a striking start.

Based on William ("Birdy") Wharton's 1982 novel, "A Midnight Clear" is an anti-war movie in the vein of "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Catch-22." Its fantasy element is less pronounced, but its voice is similarly young, skeptical and bitterly rueful.

The I&R Squad's leeriness of their martial enterprise is accounted for by their late entry into a wearying war and by their intelligence. Selected for their high IQs rather than their soldierly prowess, they're not exactly military material. Once a dozen strong, half of them are dead already - "So what's intelligence?" - and at least one of their survivors is headed for a nervous breakdown.

Nineteen-year-old squad leader Sgt. Will Knott (Ethan Hawke) is the youngest in the bunch. Under his command are Stan Shutzer (Arye Gross), a Jew who knows exactly why he's fighting the Nazis; "Father" Mundy (Frank Whaley), who's having second thoughts about giving up the priesthood for the Army; Bud Miller (Peter Berg) and Mel Avakian (Kevin Dillon), who just want to avoid becoming "one more ventilated whiz kid"; and "Mother" Wilkins (Gary Sinise), 26 years old, married, and in a desperate state of mind after learning that his first child has been stillborn.

With Hawke's voiceover guiding the narrative, the viewer shares the soldiers' puzzlement as they realize that the villa is indeed surrounded by Germans, but that no hostilities are forthcoming.

Instead another kind of challenge - inspired, at least in part, by the sylvan surroundings - is made. Knott gives the clue to what's afoot when he comments, "I'm having my usual trouble - noticing how beautiful the world is, just when I might be leaving it."

The story soon raises the question: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?" To their credit, Wharton and Gordon, who adapted the novel for the screen, don't settle for an easy answer.

It's up to Hawke ("Dead Poets Society," "White Fang") to carry the film, and he's equal to the task. His Knott is bright, sensitive, but at a clear disadvantage in having to learn his leadership role on the job. Hawke deftly makes his insecurity, intuition and frustration legible on screen.

Sinise is the other key player, and while he invests his wild-card character with an apt intensity, he doesn't match Hawke's subtler shadings. The rest of the cast have less to do, with Berg, Dillon and Whaley failing to make much impression in their roles. Gross does better, perhaps because his part allows for some particularly telling ironies in the story. John C. McGinley, as Knott's commanding officer, delivers a standard-issue sadistic martinet without giving him much detail.

A dreamy musical score by Mark Isham ("The Moderns") and some deft camera work by Tom Richmond are more crucial in creating the film's mixture of threat and unreality. And the anti-war message is driven home by some touches that go beyond the usual blood-and-gore, notably in a brief scene where an Army coroner inserts a dog tag in a dead soldier's mouth for ID purposes and then slaps the dead man's jaw shut with unnerving efficiency.

"A Midnight Clear" doesn't do as much as it might with its characters. But as a parable of human folly and fragile hope, it has considerable impact.