There was a time in the seventies and eighties where Harrison Ford was The Man. Guys wanted to be him and ladies wanted to be with him. Nobody will ever be cooler than Han Solo (a fact you can take with you to your grave) and all the credit for that has to go to Mr. Ford. While he may not have made anything all that spectacular lately, his older films still hold up really well and some of them stand as a real testament to just how good an actor Harrison Ford is when he's working on decent material. Witness in particular is a shining example of how it all comes together sometimes, and Paramount has decided to reissue the film in a new special edition.
Harrison Ford plays John Book (a role originally developed with Sylvester Stallone in mind), a cop who finds himself having to protect a young Amish boy named Samuel Lapp (Luke Haas) who, while out with his mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) witnesses a brutal murder in a train station men's room. The victim of the attack turns out to be an undercover narcotics agent and the boy is at risk because of what he's seen. When confronted with Amish society, the hardboiled inner city cop is faced with a culture he doesn't understand but he does his job and soon enough he starts falling for Rachel.
Telling you anymore about the storyline would be a grave disservice to anyone who hasn't seen this one yet (there's got to be at least two or three of you out there) so I'm going to leave it at that. The less you know going into the last half of the film for the first time, the better.
While the film's he made in the last decade have been hit or miss, there's no denying the exceptional way that Ford (who as nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award for this role) handles his performance in Witness. He's perfectly cast as John Book and you can really see it in his face and his eyes when the action starts just how conflicted he is over everything that he's going through and in turn that he's putting this family through simply by being where he is. In a sense, he turns their entire world upside down. A good portion of the film does focus on Book's growing understanding and tolerance of a culture he knows nothing about, and Ford does a completely admirable job of growing his character's emotions and feelings as the storyline, and in turn the romance he experiences, develops. The Amish focus on family and brotherhood is foreign to Book, who isn't exactly the most gentle of souls. Their passiveness to the threat that faces Samuel is completely at odds with his defensive stance on the issue, which leads to some interesting conflict between Book and some of the community members who pull clout in the area. Not to be outdone, Kelly McGillis is also very good as Rachel, the Amish mother. Made a year before she broke many a young man's heart in the ultra cheesy Top Gun, she proves here to be more than capable of handling a serious dramatic role and she brings a certain softness and sensuality to her character that makes for an interesting contract to Ford's gruff and tough cop. Her confusion and concern over her son's plight is genuine and heartfelt and it's interesting to watch Rachel and Book's relationship develop as they obviously come from two completely different worlds. When Rachel finally does recognize that she has feelings for this strange man who has been thrust so vehemently into her otherwise quiet and slow moving world, she's unsure how to approach it, and likewise, Book has no idea how or if he can win her heart though he obviously reciprocates.
Look for Viggo Mortensen (of Lord Of The Rings fame) in his big screen debut in a supporting role as a young Amish man named Moses Hochleitner. Danny Glover of the Lethal Weapon films has also got a good supporting role in the film.
Though the film was originally slated to be directed by David Cronenberg (which would have been interesting), Peter Weir (who also got an Oscar nomination for this film) does a truly masterful job of holding the reins on this one. Witness does a fantastic job of combining the perfect blend of romance, drama, action and suspense with some interesting characters in a unique setting that it all just falls into place. The look of the film suits the storyline very nice and the Oscar winning editing from Thom Noble keeps the pacing tight and the plot moving along nicely. John Seale's Oscar nominated cinematography does a fine job of not only capturing the rather odd surroundings that the bulk of the film takes place in but also the grittiness of some of the other locales and the intensity of the action and suspense sequences. The film was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Score, and Best Art-Set Direction in 1986 (the same year that Out Of Africa cleaned house), proving that it's technical achievements weren't overshadowed by the acting, at least not in the eyes of the Academy.
Paramount presents Witness in a very nice anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85.1. The quality of the image on this DVD is very solid indeed, with deep, strong black levels and wonderfully distinct color reproduction – there are no instances with bleeding or over saturation at all. In terms of print damage, there's very little to complain about, just a speck here and there and while there is some mild film grain in a few scenes it isn't distracting at all. There's a very revelatory level of both foreground and background detail in the picture and there are no problems at all with mpeg compression artifacts. Some mild edge enhancement can be seen in a few spots as well as a few minute instances of shimmering here and there but neither of those issues are too severe and they don't detract from this otherwise exemplary transfer at all. Paramount has done an excellent job with the picture quality on this release and Witness looks great.
Paramount has provided three audio mixes on this release. The primary mix is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix but there are also English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround and French language Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround mixes on here as well. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish and an English closed captioning feature is also included.
As long as your hardware will accommodate it, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix is the way to go on this release. While this is hardly an action intensive film, there are definitely some intense moments in the film that make excellent use of the rear channels to build atmosphere and suspense. The dialogue is crystal clear and it's never overshadowed by the musical score of by the sound effects, you'll not have any problems understanding the performers in the film on this DVD. While the lower end could have used just a tad more bass in the mix, it still proves to be pretty strong and there are a few moments where you'll pick up on that nice, low rumble coming out of your subwoofer, as subtle as it sometimes is. The 2.0 mix also sounds great, but it lacks the atmosphere that the 5.1 mix brings to the table but in terms of overall clarity and quality, it's just fine as is the French dub if you should choose to watch the film that way.
The biggest and best of the extra features and what will likely be the deciding factor in an upgrade for those who own the earlier Paramount DVD release of the film is the brand new five part documentary, Between Two Worlds: The Making Of Witness. The five chapters of the documentary are:
Chapter One: Origins which examines the genesis of the film, how producer Edward S. Feldman bought the script and decided on a director for the film and why he and Peter Weir were initially attracted to the project in the first place.
Chapter Two: Amish Country takes a look at how the filmmakers went about creating a film environment that successfully brought some authenticity to the Amish aspect of the film, something that isn't very often explored in Hollywood. Weir mentions how he knew very little at all about the culture when he was brought on board the project and how making this movie was very much an exercise in 'learning as you go.'
Chapter Three: The Artistic Process is made up of comments primarily from Weir who discusses his working relationship with a few of the other key players involved in making the film both in front of and behind the camera and it talks about the look of the film and some of the sets.
Chapter Four: The Heart Of The Matter is a look back at the on screen chemistry between Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis that made the romantic aspect of the film so successful. McGillis' recollections of shooting the scene in the barn and the intense heat that they had to deal with are rather amusing and the two seem to have enjoyed working with one another. Weir's analysis of what he was going for during the bath scene is also quite interesting.
Chapter Five: The Denouement is a look at exactly that – the finale of the film and the conflict that takes place. John Seale discusses some of the cinematography in the later part of the film and Harrison Ford talks about how some of the moments between his character and the character of Samuel hit very close to home with him because of his relationship with his own children.
Overall, with a combined running time of over forty three minutes in length, this documentary is a very well rounded and comprehensive look at the film from those who made it. Not only are Ford, Weird, Seale and McGillis interviewed but Viggo Mortensen chimes in with his recollections on the movie as do Lukas Haas and Paula LuPone as well. Plenty of clips from the movie play underneath the interviews or in the background and there are a lot of behind the scenes shots thrown in to highlight specific moments of the discussion. The end result is a pretty satisfying examination of how the movie was made and how it affected those involved with the process – it's an interesting watch and it's nice to see Paramount starting to put this kind of effort into their extra features as the film should have been given this kind of treatment the first time out on DVD.
Rounding out the extra features are three television promo spots and the film's theatrical trailer. There's also a deleted scene from the network television friendly version of the film included that runs for 4:10. It starts off with Samuel playing Donkey Kong with some of the other boys and ends up getting Rachel into an argument.
Paramount's special edition release of Peter Weir's Witness is pretty hard to pass up. The audio and video are excellent throughout and while the lack of a commentary is a strike against it the new documentary on the making of and history of the film is pretty interesting stuff. The film stands up nicely after all these years, a highlight in Harrison Ford's career. This one can't come any less than highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.