Terrence Malick's much ballyhooed comeback is a near-masterpiece whose very qualities that make it such an astonishing film to watch spell its failure to become the Masterpiece Malick so clearly wants it to be. In its abstraction, the film is in its first two hours emerges as a spellbinding meditation on Man, War, and Nature. (Malick's Transcendental bent just seems to demand capital letters.) Never has a war film been so keenly aware of the terrain its battles are fought over -- the camera snakes over the terrain much like the men -- and the company of infantry that servers as our film's obstenible human center become extensions of the battle terrain, with the dirt covering the dog-tagged bodies and the soot on blasted tree trunks being very much interchangable.
During the long assault on the hill, this strategy works brilliantly -- there are a plethora of stunning images, all set to Hans Zimmer's magnificent score (the best of the year, by far). And as much as I admire Janusz Kaminski's work in Saving Private Ryan, if John Toll does not win the Oscar for Cinematography, it's a travesty. But when the film turns to more mundane human concerns after the assault finishes, Malick's abstracting strategy works against him. The men all look very much alike, and they have been so sketchily drawn, that I found myself not caring much not only because I didn't know the character, I couldn't even *tell* who they were supposed to be. The last hour becomes a broken-step march to the end, with many scenes that feel like they should be the final one, but aren't. There's still some damn fine moments (including the film's best single scene, the death of Private Witt) but the flow of the film has been broken. Not surprisingly, very few actors stand out in the vast ensemble, and those that do (Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas) do so, I suspect, because they happen to have a large chunk of the film's sparse dialogue.