Like the society where much of its story takes place, “Witness” is a simple tale, almost plain in its telling. That’s not to say it’s a bad story. Of course not. It’s just simply a story that deals with one basic idea, building it toward its climax and an inevitably bittersweet ending.
Shorn of the events in Amish country, “Witness” would be just another bland cop movie. Corruption in the ranks. Crooked cops involved in drug trafficking. The cop investigating them gets killed. One good guy figures it out and is on the run, hoping he can expose them before they take him out. Seen that one a billion times.
But take that good guy, John Book (Harrison Ford), and send him off to the Amish country, where he tries to fit in among deeply religious pacifists who live as if it’s still the 1800s, and you have the makings for an intriguing fish out of water story. Throw in a forbidden attraction between him and a young Amish widow whose son saw the investigating cop’s death, and you have a tale that’s a joy to watch unfold.
And just like the Amish, “Witness” isn’t a demonstrative, flashy film. Even the violent climax doesn’t drag on as long as it would in a typical cop film. If Michael Bay had directed this one, there would have been an Amish buggy chase at the end, complete with the Amish elders renouncing their pacifism to lay waste to the crooked cops. And he would have spouted some drivel about “bringing harmony and balance to the Amish religion” while doing interviews for the film.
While the climax of the cop storyline features restrained violence, the climax to the love story is similarly restrained. I believe it was Peter Weir who, in the accompanying documentary on this DVD, said that he tossed out the two-page heartfelt conversation between Book and Rachel (Kelly McGillis), choosing instead to substitute a series of knowing looks. In the hands of lesser actors, it would have fallen flat. In their hands, however, you know what they’re saying even if they don’t speak a word. And if you were paying attention, you know that Book summed up their relationship maybe 15 to 20 minutes earlier in the movie.
Speaking of the documentary, this Special Collectors Edition features “Between Two Worlds: The Making of ‘Witness,’” which is broken into five parts, all between 10 and 20 minutes each. While I wish the screenwriters had been interviewed to discuss how the script changed from its original three-hour epic length to the two-hour version, this documentary does a fine job otherwise of charting the film’s progress from conception to the final product. There’s no Peter Weir commentary, since he apparently detests them, but you get plenty of discussion from him in the documentary, along with thoughts from all the major cast members. You even get to hear from Viggo Mortensen, who made his theatrical debut in this movie.
You also get a deleted scene that was restored for the network TV airing of the film. I can understand why it was cut. But it’s still an interesting look at the story’s culture clash, except we’re in the home of Book’s sister as Rachel and her son, Samuel, confront the typical middle class America family. Three TV spots and the theatrical trailer round out this disc.