What’s Old Is New Again: Witness

Roger Ebert, the great film critic and namesake of this website once wrote, “A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.”

I can think of no more superlative example of this thesis than the 1985 film Witness.

If you took this movie on its premise alone, you might fall out of your seat laughing: hardened Philadelphia cop goes undercover among the Amish, plays father figure to a young Amish boy and falls in love with an Amish woman. This is SNL stuff, Hollywood spoofery.

And yet it’s not. Not by a long shot.

I rewatched this one recently for the first time in roughly 30 years and I can’t stop thinking about it. It is a beautiful, intelligent, passionate movie that succeeds as genre fare while transcending genre limitations. It treats all of its characters–particularly the Amish, but even the bad-cop villains–with dignity and intelligence. It never condescends or caricatures. It has the feel of a novel, of realistic characters in a somewhat unusual, but wholly believable situation.

Witness brought Harrison Ford his first and only Oscar nomination, and without Googling to see who actually won that year, I’m gonna go ahead and say he was robbed. Ford obsession has been a recurrent topic here at the ole Ebert Test, but that obsession has usually orbited around the twin poles of his mighty career: Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Witness represents a deep cut that once rediscovered, adds a whole new layer to his oeuvre. You might call it his Beatles For Sale.

Or…you might not. You might not be as weird as I am.

But I digress.

Here, Ford gives a performance akin to George Clooney’s work in Michael Clayton (which would come 20 years later): his movie star charisma mutes itself in a way that allows it to harmonize with the gravitas of the material. I have never really liked Ford as a cop. It never quite seems the right fit. He is a tad too brainy, a bit too much of a contrarian. Not exactly a conformist. Here, he is utterly believable as an intelligent, tough detective consumed by his work. He is a good man among thieves and murderers, smart and strong.

It is no hyperbole to say they don’t make ’em like this anymore. Any number of Leading Chrises (Pratt, Evans, Pine, Hemsworth et al.) are roughly Ford’s age, if not older than he was, when he made Witness.

And yet, they seem like so many boys. Leading men just don’t give off this level of Grown Manitude anymore. To quote Ebert again, “This is a movie about adults.”

The great Czech actor and singer Jan Rubes, in his sixties while making the film, plays Amish patriarch Eli Lapp with exquisite understatement, never a folksy cliche or vehicle for cheap laughs.

There is also the small matter of Kelly McGillis, here a couple years out from Top Gun. She was early in her career at this point, and man, what a find she must have been. The kind that can make a casting director’s career.

Viewed through a 2023 lens, her character is perhaps a bit passive, her motives and storyline revolving almost exclusively around Ford’s character, and yet she fills the character with such quiet passion and intelligence that it never feels like a case of playing second fiddle. Her accent work is (I assume) spot on. She does wonders with her eyes alone.

She and Ford’s chemistry keeps the film from being a hokey fish out of water melodrama. Instead, it is a genuine love story that is never consummated; it is a movie where the Big Bad is not violently dispatched by our hero in the end (though a few of his henchman do buy it in bloody fashion–you gotta throw the viewers some kind of bone). Instead, the climactic moment comes when the villain collapses under the weight of his own evil, the realization that he has woven a web too tangled to get out of. He just gives up. Admits he was wrong. Surrenders.

When was the last time you saw that in an action movie?

I’m telling you: they don’t make ’em like this anymore.

Addendum: If you’re reading this, first of all: thanks. Second of all, you may have noticed I’ve been gone a while. I’ll just say it’s been a busy year. One I’ll be writing about soon. In any case, I plan to be here more regularly in the upcoming months. Thanks for reading. Stay gold.

3 thoughts on “What’s Old Is New Again: Witness

  1. Nice. btw, McGillis had her debut in Reuben, Reuben, which ultimately derived from a novel by the great Peter DeVries (my favorite comic novelist)

    Liked by 1 person

      1. A couple of DeVries lines that have stuck with me:

        ‘The road to good intentions is paved with Hell.’
        ‘I’ve founded a new philosophical school. I call it ‘self-pitying stoicism.’


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