As I've previously mentioned, I'm missing a lot of key 80's movies from my film vocabulary. I've been rectifying this over the last several months, but still no John Hughes or the steroid-driven action movies of Stallone and Schwarzenegger. I tried The Goonies, but it is not for me. The 80's are still missing an A+ movie. Witness isn't quite there, but as a film that layers in a great deal on top of its standard cop story, it's a very satisfying reminder that that decade wasn't just bad William Peterson performances and synth soundtracks.
The first half of the 80's were completely dominated by Harrison Ford. He made one movie a year from 1980 to 1985, two of which were Star Wars sequels and two more were Indiana Jones movies. He made Blade Runner in 1982, the least successful of the period, but probably the one with the greatest critical reputation 30 years on. Witness capped this bonkers run in 1985, and was a critical and commercial hit, netting him an Oscar nomination. After all those adventure and sci-fi movies, it's easy to see why he might prefer something a little less physically strenuous.
The movie itself half-works as a metaphor for his career at the time, as he leaves big Hollywood projects for a small film mostly set in Amish country. After enduring mine-shaft chases and fighting alongside Ewoks, Ford isn't able to rely on spectacle here, and instead gives what I thought was a restrained, expressive performance. Most of his intentions and emotions and frustrations can't be spoken in the polite company of the Amish, but it's never in doubt what he's thinking. In the late moment in the silo when he's just about to be seen, there's real panic and fear on his face. It's a reminder that he's not invulnerable despite his iconic career, and I thought it was one of the more human and empathetic moments in that career.
Ford's character of John Book is a cross between Jimmy McNulty and his character in Patriot Games. Book's got McNulty's cocky assurance that everyone around him is an idiot who will eventually be exposed. In Patriot Games, Ford's Jack Ryan foils a terrorist attack not out of courage so much as a personal need to ensure justice is being carried out. Both of those impulses are tamped down by the Amish, as he finds himself the disruptive outsider placed in this peaceful community. The pivotal moment comes when the white trash are harassing the Amish, and Book's insistence on immediate justice, and his righteous superiority in applying it, put his and all the protagonists' lives in danger. He has a chance to adapt to a more graceful way, rejects it, and is punished, the kind of Old Testament, mythic kind of moral justice that implies the god of the movie is watching.
That more graceful way of the Amish is respectfully treated by director Peter Weir. There aren't jokes at their expense, and it's a sin to see them treated as foreign spectacles in their own country. However, the tradeoffs of their lifestyle are included. The scene with Samuel in the train station stands out, as Weir lingers on his reaction to the statue. This is likely the first time that kid has seen man-made beauty, something derided and avoided in an Amish community whose only adjective for aesthetics is 'plain.' Keeping a child from seeing more of the world also feels like a sin. However, after having witnessed the best that man is capable of, he shortly after witnesses the worst. Weir is right up in young Lukas Haas's face for both experiences, communicating their lasting impact and asking if the sight of the statue was worth seeing the murder.
This series of scenes takes on deeper weight following Grandpa Lapp's later talk with Samuel. His affecting speech is an indictment of nationalism, as membership in the English country would mean engaging in the country's wars. The moral strength of farmers standing up and telling the US government, "You cannot make us kill" is stirring, moreso for them having won. The good cannot be defended with murder, or it's simply not good anymore. Grandpa Lapp would let Danny Glover go, destined to be judged for his actions by one who can see inside his heart. Theirs is the kind of faith that has the courage of its convictions. Humans crave justice, and for the Amish to outwardly reject any earthly attempts at it is a highly idealistic stance, one that's conveyed with such conviction, that the viewer wants it to work even while knowing that it's a pipe dream. That kind of holding back the tide, of fighting an unwinnable fight, makes the Amish deeply sympathetic in the film, and frankly, in real life as well.
Amidst the crooked cops and the fish-out-of-water story, Witness could just as easily be about a woman grappling with the loss of her husband. In the midst of the first act fireworks, it'd be easy to forget that the movie slowly and deliberately starts with a funeral. Kelly McGillis never breaks down or even talks about her husband, but in the looks she gives Book, I think she's less falling for him than replacing what's gone. There's very little sense of time passing in the film, such that it might take place over two weeks. So on day 1, Rachel buried her husband, and on day 5 or 6, a man is walking around her home in his her husband's clothes, doing his chores, playing with his son. Without that added wrinkle, I would think much less of the love story between Rachel and Book but through that lens, it's much more interesting, and it gives McGillis more to play than just "That guy's cute." That she turns her back on Book at the end is a signal that she's finished with this grieving process, a tame rumspringa that has run its course, and she's now ready to move on with the man she was always going to remarry, the German guy from Die Hard.
Witness hit me much harder than I thought it would. With Peter Weir, I expected it to look great, and it did. That near-wordless intro communicates their communitarianism and their isolation in a beautiful series of shots. It didn't surprise me on a plot level, but the sense of place and the generosity with which it was depicted turned those predictable beats into palatable ones. Ford reveals himself as more than a big-budget movie star and does some real acting, McGillis is much more than a romantic interest, and the supporting cast, particularly Lukas Haas and Jan Rubes, are memorable and valuable. Even the title is multi-faceted in a way that could've warranted another couple paragraphs. I do have a niggling suspicion that there's some noble savagery here. I'm always on the lookout for that intolerable trope, but I think the film somehow avoids this, even though all the hallmarks are there. I'm still unsure why that bell didn't ring, and maybe we can talk it out in comments. The 80's A+ remains elusive, but Witness is one of the decade's better films at an A-.