**/**** Image A Sound A-
starring James Caan, Robert Sean Leonard, Daniel Roebuck, Jamie Harrold
screenplay by David Freed
directed by Mikael Salomon
by Walter Chaw Apart from the satirical possibilities, it appears that the rationale behind the title A Glimpse of Hell is the graphic aftermath of an explosion in the gunnery chamber of the U.S.S. Iowa. A made-for-TV docudrama that breeds Edward Dmytryk's The Caine Mutiny with Rob Reiner's A Few Good Men, A Glimpse of Hell impresses only with its dedication to mediocrity. While the subject is topical, recounting the possible malfeasance aboard an aging battleship that resulted in a magazine explosion, the execution is theatrical and cardboard from direction (by Mikael Salomon, cinematographer of The Abyss) to performance.
Lieutenant (j.g.) Dan Meyer (Robert Sean Leonard) is eager to serve aboard the "sword's point"--a battleship, the legendary Iowa, that is run with a kind of imperious Queeg-ness by Capt. Fred Moosally (James Caan). Shocked at the apparent decrepitude of the ship's armaments (a soda can is used as a stop-gap for a poorly fitted gun), Lt. Meyer drafts memos and worries his lower lip but is unable to prevent tragedy from striking. The Navy, in order to hide the disrepair of their fleet, conspires to blame a homosexual lover's pique for the mishap.
A Glimpse of Hell's saving grace may be Leonard's earnestness, which, taken with Caan's trademark slow-witted burn, produces a fitfully intriguing dynamic at the centre of the story. Despite a relatively snappy script that largely avoids jingoism and flat dialogue, A Glimpse of Hell suffers from plot devices that are too clearly such. Most distracting are repeated scenes in which Meyer retreats to his father's home, sometimes inexplicably, to hammer out his thoughts on first his responsibility to report the Iowa's condition and then his growing astonishment at the Navy's dedication to scapegoating an innocent man.
That the film is ostensibly based upon a book (by Charles C. Thompson II) drawn from a true story goes only so far towards ameliorating some difficulties with the staging. As it is based on a true story, however, a few ethical questions might be raised to the explicitness of the carnage shown post-explosion. I'm not certain if the families of the fallen would be interested to see how A Glimpse of Hell portrays their boys in various states of bloody dismemberment, nor am I sure how accurate such a scene can be as it appears as though the Naval cover-up began instantly.
A Glimpse of Hell isn't a bad movie, all things considered. The characterizations are broad, the archetypes are all in place; it's as if, at a brisk 87 minutes, there wasn't much time for complexity. Yet the film does what it appears to have set out to accomplish (that is, vilify the faceless leadership while championing the common sailor). The real question of currency is whether a film so openly critical of our military can be made in our current wartime environment of flag-waving and chest-pounding and, more to the point, whether the timing of this film's release suggests the belief that A Glimpse of Hell can now be taken as a patriotic film rather than a paranoid one. Whatever the case, as a shorthand analysis, A Glimpse of Hell serves an adequate springboard for a more in-depth examination of prejudice and incompetence amongst our warrior leaders.
Fox DVD's 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of A Glimpse of Hell is sharp and satisfying. Contrast is spot on, shadow detail is lovely, colour is lively, and black levels are appropriately black. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is largely underutilized, considering the film is short on action and long on exposition, though the explosions do rumble nicely. Technically speaking, both audio and visual presentations are above reproach. The disc is rounded out with trailers for unrelated Fox movies: The Deep End, Don't Say A Word, Kiss of the Dragon, and Sexy Beast. Originally published: March 3, 2002.