A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
The advance buzz on "The Alamo" was negative, and now I know why: This is a good movie. Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that any movie named "The Alamo" must be simplistic and rousing, despite the fact that we already know all the defenders got killed. (If we don't know it, we find out in the first scene.) Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form.
The arc of the Alamo story is a daunting one for any filmmaker: Long days and nights of waiting, followed by a massacre. Even though the eventual defeat of Santa Anna by Sam Houston provides an upbeat coda, it's of little consolation to the dead defenders. This movie deals frankly with the long wait and the deadly conclusion, by focusing on the characters of the leaders; it's about what they're made of, and how they face a bleak situation.
Davy Crockett, the man in the coonskin hat, surprisingly becomes the most three-dimensional of the Alamo heroes, in one of Billy Bob Thornton's best performances. We see him first in a theater box, attending a play inspired by his exploits. We learn of his legend; even Santa Anna's men whisper that he can leap rivers in a single bound and wrestle grizzly bears to death. And then we watch Crockett with a rueful smile as he patiently explains that he did not do and cannot do any of those things, and that his reputation has a life apart from his reality.
Crockett, who was a U.S. congressman before fate led him to the Alamo, has two scenes in particular that are extraordinary, and Thornton brings a poignant dignity to them. One is his memory of a U.S. Army massacre of Indians. The other occurs when the Mexicans, who have brought along a band, have their players put on a show. Crockett know just what the band needs, climbs one of the battlements, takes out his violin and serenades both sides. It is one of those moments, like the Christmas Eve truce in World War I, when fighting men on both sides are reminded of the innocence they have lost. Crockett also has a line that somehow reminded me of the need, in "Jaws," for a bigger boat: "We're going to need more men."