WITNESS. Directed by Peter Weir; written by Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley; produced by Edward S. Feldman for Paramount. Starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis. Rated R (violence, a smidgen of nudity).
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Don't go to this movie expecting to see Indiana Jones Meets Dirty Harry. or even Han Solo Joins the Hill Street Blues.
It's not the usual sort of cops-and-robbers movie, which I find refreshing. But for some viewers it may be long on atmosphere and short on action.
While en route to visit relatives, Amish widow Rachel (McGillis) and her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas) suffer an unexpectedly long layover in the Philadelphia train station.
Samuel doesn't mind the wait. The everyday modern conveniences (like water fountains) and the postindustrial bustle are new to him and he seems quite entranced by it all. Then their "sightseeing" takes a bizarre turn when he witnesses a murder in the men's room.
Ford plays investigating cop John Book. Book is a tough guy, but we know he is honest as the day is long, even without testimonials by several different characters. And from his first talk with Samuel, his sensitivity is apparent as well.
What makes Book particularly likeable, however (and this was lacking in many of Ford's earlier non-Solo/Jones characters), is his sense of humor. The range demanded by the role of Book is impressive, and Ford does an excellent job.
After the murder case takes some unexpected twists, Book must hide out at Rachel's farm. And here is where Witness really departs from the usual shoot-'em-up.
The Amish's strong pacifist beliefs contrast sharply with Book's lifestyle. Book's and Rachel's personal feelings are complicated by this fundamental difference (especially after they fall in love). And the audience has something more interesting to think about than who is going to get blown apart next.
Witness' director can handle action, but this movie is a lot like some of his others (Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously come to mind).
There are hints of deeper issues and ironies, as well as a true artist's eye, in all these movies. His concern is more with people than events. This emphasis is obvious from the large number of close-ups in Witness, many more than in conventional action movies.
Viewers who get impatient with atmosphere may not enjoy Witness. In addition, the less romantically inclined may feel there are a few too many "come hither" looks exchanged and not enough actual coming-hither.
But the story is intriguing and the performances engaging. A surprise stand-out in the supporting cast is Russian dancer Alexander Godunov. His part is small, but he makes the most of it, giving both the story and the portrait of Amish life an added dimension.
The rating of Witness deserves a special comment. When the PG-13 rating first appeared, that rating seemed to be the catch-all. There were many levels of potentially offensive material in PG-13 movies.
Now that variety is found in the R rating. Either approach is fine, but it would be nice if the ratings board would settle down with one or the other. In short, judging by the last six months' output of movies, Witness should have been rated PG-13, not R.
February 20, 1985