There's more than one conflict raging in The War (Universal, PG-13), a lesson-laden parable from (as the ads eagerly promote) ''the director of Fried Green Tomatoes,'' Jon Avnet, set, once again, in the rural South. First there's the War in Vietnam. It's 1970 and Stephen Simmons (Kevin Costner) has returned psychically and physically wounded, unable to keep a job and tormented by nightmares that have become as familiar to his wife, Lois (Mare Winningham), and children, Lidia (Lexi Randall) and Stu (Elijah Wood), as the map of scars on his chest. But there are also childhood wars being fought no less fiercely on home turf: by Lidia and her two best friends against Stu and his girl-baiting buddies; by Lidia and those best friends, who are black, against a racist schoolteacher; and, in the biggest, most violent battle of all, by the Simmons children and their allies all of them poor against a family of even more impoverished kids, a mean, junkyard gaggle of siblings called the Lipnickis, who bear their own emotional scars from neglect and from mistreatment by their drunken father.
In this showdown of tribe against tribe, the trophy is an elaborate tree house, built by the Simmons gang with scrap stolen from the Lipnicki yard, that the Lipnickis decide to claim for themselves. How kid fights kid and what each learns about loyalty, friendship, hatred, bravery, enemies, possessions, and the value of ammunition found in Dad's old Army trunk thereby echoing and reinterpreting the struggles Dad experienced in a swampy country far away are the lessons this War teaches. Welcome back, weary Pulp Fiction travelers, to Forrest Gump country.
Gump serves up a candy box of aphorisms; The War hammers home lessons too many of them, told through too many stories. (The movie would make a nice, busy, hour-long drama series along the lines of Homefront. Or The Waltons After Vietnam: The Post-Traumatic Stress Years.) So intent are Avnet and screenwriter Kathy McWorter on giving us a resonant, heartwarming emotional experience that they practically yank our hearts out with surgical tongs. Doesn't this scene get ya? Avnet all but hollers after a muted, solid Costner-as-decent-family-man turns the other cheek when Lipnicki Sr. taunts and torments him. A tender scene between Stephen and Lois clutches us by the throat with the power of marital vows for better or for worse (Winningham has only a wisp of a character to work with as another Good Wife). War is not healthy, The War sobs, and Vietnam was hell but it was apolitical hell, and isn't it wonderful that so many soldiers who returned still found a way to believe in goodness? Forrest Gump was Vietnam revisited for the summer of 1994; The War is Hollywood's remorseful salute to Nam for the fall.
Costner does nimble work here, perhaps his most accessible and appealing in a long time. He's nicely weighted (figuratively and literally, with an attractive hint of middle-aged bulk hey, the guy looks great). And in a plot heavy with sentimentality, he maintains a light touch. But in this Southern vale of tears, it's Elijah Wood who really stands out. His beautiful eyes can still project the uncomplicated devotion of the child he was in Radio Flyer or The Good Son. But at 13, with arms and legs lengthening and face mutating into adolescence, Wood is evolving as an actor, too. The signs are there that he alone among today's hot child stars will also have a career as an adult. As Stu, Wood steers a course away from easy tears; his performance is the true north of The War, even when the movie is all over the map. Track Stu's moral and emotional development and you've learned plenty. Everything else can wait for the TV spin-off. C+