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Witness (1985); And the Subtleties of Taste

January 4, 2016

Witness_movieI never got to watch Witness when it came out in 1985 seeing as I wasn’t even conceived then. I knew of it throughout the 1990s, but the opportunity or interest to watch it never produced itself. I finally watched Witness for the first time this past Christmas during an unintentional Harrison Ford marathon that began with listening to Screen Junkies Movie Fights’ heady discussions about Ford’s importance in Indiana Jones, Blade Runner and Regarding Henry. The day after I watched Witness, then I happened into a marathon of the Star Wars films before finally ending with Ford’s triumphant return as Han Solo in The Force Awakens. I learned two things from this accidental Harrison Ford film orgy. One is that you shockingly can never have enough Harrison Ford. Two, as tastes and time changes, sometimes it’s hard to find the greatness in archaic, outdated relics that were once praised. Even if it was only 30 years ago.


Witness is a product of its time. Witness released in 1985 where it became a sleeper hit while film critics ate it up with a spoon, then begged for more. It swept through Oscar nominations gaining traction for best actor, director, screenplay, editing, and ultimately best picture. Ford received his first Oscar nomination from his role as John Book and cemented himself into a status of legacy. I can’t for the life of me figure out why Witness turned into such a phenomena that still holds acclaim and regard within the critical world.

Witness is one of the most flavorless films I’ve seen that has been regarded in such high esteem by the masses. I find it puzzling that many considered Ford’s performance as groundbreaking, because it frankly just isn’t by any stretch of the imagination. This is the man who gave us bravery in the face of fear and uncertainty as Indiana Jones. Ford showed audiences an interplanetary humor and charm without being hokey or cheesy as Han Solo. He captures a mysterious seriousness and sadness as Ray McCoy. Ford is capable of a range of emotions in most, if not all, of his previous films before 1985. So, how did his most subdued and underwhelming performance receive high praise? While Ford’s charisma still shines through John Book, his talents are all but squandered in the lackluster story of Witness.


Within the room of people I watched Witness with the consensus was unanimous. No one considered it an exceptional film. We waited with bated breath for a stellar performance sure to emerge somewhere in the two-hour film, but atlas were only met with disappointment. This invited the quandary of how Witness received its nomination and whom were its competitors? In 1985, three films dominated the critical opinion of best films in the year by Academy standards: Prizzi’s Honor, Out of Africa, Witness and The Color Purple. Of all these films, The Color Purple fell by the wayside as a contender winning nothing despite having 11 nominations. The other three went on to sweep the Oscars that year.

Why? What was it about the somber, bland story of Witness or the hokey plot of Prizzi’s Honor, or the bland, racially insensitive Out of Africa that adamantly caught so many people’s attention? Witness is a romantic drama masked as a thriller that follows the events of a murder investigation that an Amish boy witnesses on his first trip away from home. The anxiety and tension the murder creates in the story gets marred by the evolving love story between John Book and the boy’s widowed mother, Sara. The conflict is minimized and the value of watching is even less, but that didn’t stop Academy officials from heralding this film as a beacon among filmmaking.


Peter Weir, who a few years prior made the mesmerizing Picnic at Hanging Rock, implored his skills as a means of capturing the simplistic nature of Amish life. We enter into their world through Weir’s focus on the rituals and practices in place by the Amish and also through Earl and Pamela Wallace and William Kelly’s script that paints the details of their lives for outsiders. The screenplay also effectively reminds viewers of the untactful nature of scrutinizing and fish bowling these people. Still, the direction and writing aren’t enough to uphold Witness as an extraordinary film or even above average. Witness is underwhelming in its stance, boring even. Nevertheless, the general public watched this love story laced as a thriller and saw a prized piece due to the cultural standards and taste at the time.

However, when reviewing the films before and after Witness that received acclaimed by the critics it starts to make sense why this film got held in such high regard. A year prior Amadeus earned the title of best picture. Though Amadeus is a fantastic film about the fascinating life of Wolfgang “Mozart”Amadeus, it’s a film that is a product it its era. It’s highly theatrical featuring moments of over acting and bland narrative techniques. Witness is likewise filled with laughable 80’s synthesized music that reaches flamboyant and hardened crescendos and Weir’s greatest visual asset is the way he captures scenery through standard long shots. The acting is muted for male characters featuring only minor emotional outbursts and the love angle gets exploited like every film of the period that needed to incorporate romance as box office bait.


It should be noted that a year later in 1986 Platoon arose as a main contender winning best picture with multiple nominations under its belt. Oliver Stone’s gritty and raw story maintains a focus on realistic emotion and reactions to trauma, something Witness does not do. Witness presents a 9-year-old Amish boy never exposed to the outside world, but watches a murder first hand when he leaves home, yet is not mentally affected by it. He doesn’t experience PTSD, nightmares, or any psychological issues. His emotional dealings are completely ignored as he just smiles and keeps on with life. I can be concluded that the older elites in the film industry of 1985 didn’t desire realism in their stories. Tackling real life issues wasn’t something they were ready to confront, but with time it came. In time they expanded their desire for realism in film and a year later it seems the masses were ready to accept the horrors of reality on the human psyche.

So, what does this say about film criticism or The Academy? Everything and nothing. Maybe the Academy Awards is an outdated tradition that needs retweaking. Or maybe I should just accept that tastes will continue to change and differ as time goes on. Although that’s a tricky statement to stand by when I think of films like It Happened One Night sweeping the Oscars in it’s day and how it still holds up over 80 years later. Maybe the lesson here is how race and class has always played a part in these decisions, but that’s a given. Never take a critic’s word for something, myself included. A critic is only here to make suggestions and arguments for or against something for arguments sake, but even still that doesn’t mean our stance is sound and will guarantee you a great watching experience. But in the meantime…

AVOID IT. If you’ve never seen Witness before I can’t imagine it making an impression on you today unless you’re a huge Harrison Ford fan. If so, then it’s likely spank bank material.

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