War as filtered through a Pointillist painting. Director Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven”) has always tended toward precise, idiosyncratic impressionism and the jungle and battlefields of James Jones’ Guadalcanal novel give him the dream scenery he needs. He narrates the movie through Private Witt (James Cavaziel), a kind of narrative zoom lens, and a deeply moral one, who moves the war story back and forth between its many water-bearers.
That the cast is top-heavy with male box-office stars (Clooney, Penn, Nolte, Cusack, Travolta, Harrelson, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, etc.) matters less than the composite portrait of men at war: arrogant, frightened, damaged, ashamed, humiliated, raging. Malick’s homage to Hell amid the forced surrealism of Guadalcanal is the best personal take on war since Coppola shot Vietnam out of a cannon and came up with “Apocalypse Now.”