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Modest War Movie Has Offbeat Approach

A story with old-fashioned values, `A Midnight Clear' shows human decency exists amid violence of war

EVERY now and then, the impossible happens. Surrounded by presold blockbusters and high-visibility epics, a modest little movie comes along - with a simple story, an unpretentious look, and old-fashioned values - and doesn't get swept away by the sound, fury, and zillion-dollar promotion budgets of its big-studio competitors.

"A Midnight Clear" is such a movie. On the surface, it has all the disadvantages that cause most independent productions to disappear from theaters as soon as they open, if they ever get to theaters at all. Its budget is low, its subject is unusual for present-day tastes, and its cast doesn't boast a single high-powered name. Yet this small, human-scaled drama has established itself as a small, human-scaled hit with an enthusiastic - and apparently growing - audience.

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Perhaps the most unusual feature of "A Midnight Clear" is its setting: the Ardennes Forest in France, during a wintry month when World War II is drawing to a close. War movies are no longer the staple they were in the 1940s and '50s, and most of the war pictures that have drawn major attention in recent years - from "Platoon" on the left to "Rambo" on the right - have focused on issues raised by the Vietnam conflict.

"A Midnight Clear" deals with war not to exploit its violence or stir up its controversies, however. Rather, it sees the awfulness of war as a proving ground for essential human decency, where the best as well as the worst of human possibilities may make themselves felt.

The main characters of the story are six young Americans slogging through the last confusing days of a long and bitter campaign. Unlike the heroes and villains of conventional war movies, they're noteworthy for their total lack of larger-than-life characteristics.

As a group they're neither courageous nor cowardly, smart nor stupid, ingenious nor inept. They're just a group of ordinary youngsters caught in a situation they never expected or asked for - supported by the experience they've picked up on the battlefield, yet hampered by unfamiliar circumstances and a scrambled chain of command.

Their drama begins when they encounter a squad of German soldiers that's obviously close on their tail. To their surprise, the enemy doesn't seem eager to attack, even when opportunities arise.

Gradually they realize that their German counterparts are just as reluctant to fight as they are - seeing no point to further violence and misery in a war that's obviously winding to a conclusion regardless of what happens to them in the wilds of a snowbound French forest.

Step by step, a strange conspiracy emerges between the two groups, motivated not by noble purposes but by common sense and mutual regard. What remains to be seen is whether humanity and temperance can actually prevail in the dehumanizing and superheated context of wartime confrontation.

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"A Midnight Clear" is not a scrubbed-up movie that denies the brutal realities of wartime in the name of good taste. Still, it tells its story with comparative restraint, and even keeps four-letter language to a minimum, by the clever device of having the main characters play a game of not cussing.

Credit for its offbeat approach to war-movie conventions goes largely to Keith Gordon, who directed the picture from his own screenplay, based on William Wharton's novel, which also deserves a nod. Many filmgoers may remember Mr. Gordon as an experienced actor with credits as different as Brian De Palma's thriller "Dressed To Kill" and Rodney Dangerfield's comedy "Back to School," and in keeping with this, he has coached solid performances from most members of his well-chosen cast, which includes Kevin D illon, Peter Berg, Ethan Hawke, Arye Gross, and Gary Sinise.

The theatrical success of "A Midnight Clear," which shows no sign of fading anytime soon, is as surprising as it is unlikely. The movie's New York opening was preceded by very few press screenings, and there was little advance buzz about its box-office prospects.

Making up for these limitations, however, is the fact that Gordon has handled the picture's release with personal care and conviction. My own experience with the movie bears out this close involvement on his part.

A few weeks ago, when I couldn't fit any of the press previews into my schedule, I received a call not from a pushy press agent, but from Gordon himself. He was full of apologies about "breaking the rules" and calling a critic, but just had to find a way for me to see the movie, regardless of how I might eventually like it.

I saw it soon afterward, and as it turns out, I liked it fine. It's not a major film by any standard, and I wish some of its devices were a bit less blatant - the symbolic names of certain characters, for instance, and the way some aspects of the story seem raggedly woven into the film as a whole. Still, much of it has a seriousness and intelligence that are all too rare on today's movie scene. And the very modesty of the production is part of its message, proving that soft voices can make themselves hea rd - if they have something significant to say - even in the noisy clamor of blockbuster season.

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