The Messenger (2009) or Fighting, Dying, Notifying

Some people say that The Messenger should have won the Academy Award instead of  The Hurt Locker. It is very possible that they are right.

As long as there are wars there will be fighting. As long as there is fighting there will be dying. And as long as people die in combat someone will have to notify the families. This difficult duty is the job of the Casualty Notification Officer. The Messenger explores this difficult task. To notify people is difficult for many reasons. Some are devastated and the their grief is unbearably raw. Others can´t even accept it. Some turn against the messenger, some are openly aggressive. Some are kind and caring.

Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) comes back from a tour in Iraq badly injured. He is said to be a hero even though he can’t accept this. He gets appointed to assist Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) who has done the job as Casualty Notification Officer for a very long time. He tells Will to strictly follow procedures. Don´t touch the relatives. Inform them directly. Be clear and precise and leave again.

The first job they get is already a harrowing one and Will realises that it might be even more difficult than he thought it would be. After their job is done, they go for a drink. Tony is a AA, so all he drinks is hot water with lemon. He asks Will very direct questions about everything. At first Will is reluctant to answer but he has no choice.

One day the two have to inform a young woman of the death of her husband. Will is very touched by her and her reaction and contacts her again later and they start to form a bond.

There are many different stories and storylines that are interwoven which is the strength of this movie. In it´s essence I would say, yes, this is a movie about war, but it is even more a movie about relationships. Deep relationships. Each and every single person in this movie carries a deep wound, either physical or psychological. Injuries, heartbreak, loss, betrayal. They have endured a lot and try to cope and heal by opening up to each other.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are remarkable. Remarkable is actually and understatement.

I think The Messenger achieves a very rare thing. It gives us real people. Courageous and open people. And it says a lot of profound things about war and its consequences. Ultimately when there is a war, there will be death and dying. No one should forget this.

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In the Valley of Elah (2007): A Stunning Anti-Iraq War Movie

This was a surprisingly good movie with a profound anti-war statement. I don’t know why I did not watch it earlier. Somehow it escaped my radar.  I have seen quite a few Iraq war movies and thought I had seen all possible aspects. Well, I was wrong. In the Valley of Elah is a very unusual, interesting look at the war in Iraq and what it does to young soldiers, but it is also a reflection on the changes in values of soldiers. It’s a quite complex movie. To choose the form of a thriller to tell what the director wanted to tell is quite cunning. Even though it’s not a fast movie and  it takes its time to unfold what happened, it is still gripping. The time was needed as it also tries to illustrate a change in perceptions. The father who is looking for his son at the beginning of the movie will not be the same person at the end. There will be no more idealizing the military or the value and honor of soldiers.

Tommy Lee-Jones plays the above mentioned father, the retired military police officer, Hank Deerfield. He did tours in Vietnam and Korea. The military is his life. No wonder both of his sons follow the same career path. The older one became a chopper pilot, the younger, Mike, is a private who served first in Bosnia and then in Iraq.

At the beginning of the movie Hank gets a phone call informing him his son Mike is AWOL. Hank thought he was still in Iraq and doesn’t understand why Mike did not contact him. He immediately drives to the base that is located a few thousand miles away. Being a former military police investigator, he wants  to look for his son on his own. This is not much appreciated by Mike’s superiors. Hank has another reason for wanting to look for Mike. A strange phone call from his son while he was still in Iraq made him very uneasy. Something terrible must have happened there.

Hank does not get much assistance at the beginning. Neither Mike’s superiors nor his comrades are helpful. And when he goes to the police and speak to Detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) he is turned down. The military has to look for its personnel, as she informs him.

Even though she seems to be hardened, Emily has a very soft spot. And when Mike’s´ severely mutilated body is found and she realizes the military wants to cover up the murder she decides to help Hank to find out who did it. They start to  investigate together. The closer they come to the truth, the more Hank has to accept the fact that he did not really know his son and that he has no clue what is going on in Iraq. With the help of a film on Mike’s phone and bits and pieces of information from comrades he understands that this is not Korea or Vietnam and these soldiers are of a different kind. He is disillusioned and shocked about what he finds out. And so is the viewer.

This is a multi-layered, well written and well told  tale that is apparently based on true events. We have a multitude of themes here. Changes in the society and its values that also affect soldiers. What does it mean to be a good father? What values do you teach your children? Will they be able to live according to these values when everything around them falls apart? How do you keep young soldiers sane when they become aware that they are part of something that is pointless and wrong?

It is also interesting to think that a veteran probably does not equal a veteran but that it makes a big diference what war a soldier fought in.

The cast of this movie is very well-chosen. Tommy Lee-Jones looks convincingly tired, disillusioned and world-weary. Susan Sarandon‘s despair is palpable and Charlize Theron manages to play a woman whose life is all but a picnic and still looks perfectly beautiful as ususal. Although not Jason Patric´s best role, he is OK as well.

Alexander Skarsgard aka Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert in Generation Kill

Alexander Skarsgard, the Swedish actor nowadays better known as Eric the Vampire, had a life before True Blood. And quite an interesting one, I dare say.

I am not the world’s most patient person and when I started to watch HBO´s Generation Kill this lack of patience almost cost me a great viewing experience. I was really tempted to give up after episode 1 since I found it a bit boring. But since I am also a curious person I did hang on. I watched the whole series until the final episode and when I realised it was over I  thought: I am actually going to miss the series and its characters. It is a great show and if I can belive the many comments I have read on it coming from Marines, it seems to be truly authentic and captures the feel of the real thing. It is not always about combat and action. A lot is pure boredom and killing time. (And don´t forget, those guys cannot fast forward when it gets too slow).

Part of the series´ success is certainly founded in Alexanders Skarsgard´s impersonation of Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert. The guy is so composed and calm, any cooler than him and you´re probably a glacier.

Today I found this really great video post on YouTube in which Alexander, the real Iceman and the Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright on whose book the series is based all get their say.

More on Generation Kill and Alexander Skarsgard will follow soon.

A War Movie Gone Thriller: The Hurt Locker (2008)

Yes, I had to do it. I had to add something on this ubiquitous film.

The story of The Hurt Locker should be sufficiently known by now. We are shown a bomb squad on their mission to disarm bombs in Iraq. When a real danger addict is appointed to be the new leader of the squad things get really exciting.

Somehow, when I realized I liked it, I felt a soft tingling feeling of shame that made me wonder.

But the fact that I did enjoy The Hurt Locker doesn´t necessarily mean I think it is a good war movie. There was a whole lot of suspense going on. It was entertaining and it sure felt like a thriller. The possibility of every  bomb or object to prove deadly seemed like a serial killer lurking around in the dark. He sees you, you sense him. Creepy. I stopped breathing every time Sgt. First Class James started to cut those little wires.

While I was watching it I did not for one second question it. I felt just so swept away and liked it. Period. But afterwards I found it kind of problematic. One is almost grateful wars take place and offer us such a great topic of suspense.

I remember that I had very comparable feelings after having seen Apocalypse Now. The anti-war message was just not clear enough for me.

Same here. It´s like saying: yeah well, war is shit, we shouldn´t do it but so what, it´s fun.

Of course that is not what Kathryn Bigelow tried to say but it is what the audience could understand.

This potential to be misunderstood comes from the blending of the genres. Or rather the blending of major techniques of different genres. War movies don´t normally create this type of suspense. It would have been possible to show the same without creating the suspense.

Maybe I should put it that way: The Hurt Locker is one hell of an exciting movie but a dubious war movie. It is especially problematic as it shows a very specific bit of warfare in Iraq. Where every other movie with an attempt at realism (the most extreme example would be Redacted. Come to think of it, Redacted is actually the antithesis of The Hurt Locker. It is so boring it hurts) has often long boring stretches where nothing else happens but watching road blocks, this one shows it as if the war in Iraq had nothing else but moments that got your adrenaline pumping.

Be it as it may it is great filmmaking. Kathryn Bigelow is very good at that. If you want to watch another one of her movies either try Point Break (1991) or Strange Days (1995). Both are highly enjoyable without creating any guilty feelings. Especially the first one is one of the rare movies that I can watch again and again. And, as an additional asset, it will help you understand her technique and where she comes from genre and theme wise.

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Home of the Brave (2006) or When a movie really fails

Home of the Brave is about a group of soldiers who came under heavy attack shortly before being sent home. After their return they try to cope with what they have been through. They all fail to some extent before they realise they need psychological help.

What a bad, bad, bad movie! I´m embarrassed I watched it. Worst acting ever. Ridiculous dialogue, dragging storyline, wrong cast, pathetic music…

And yet, there are a lot of people who like this movie and say: that´s exactly how it was.

I don´t doubt for one sec, that this is how it was. I don´t doubt for one sec that the returning soldiers need medication, treatment, can´t make their relatives understand, despair, start to drink, get violent, blame everyone including themselves and the government.

Fine. But DO NOT show a message like this in such a way. After a while you start to wonder, why there is not a constant voice in the off telling you: ha…that was impressive, ha…see how horrible, ha….start to blame the government and now ha….

This doesn´t work. It´s like someone telling you a joke and immediately explaining you afterwards why it was funny.

The opening is quite similar to many other opening scenes of movies located in Iraq, be it Battle for Haditha, Stop-Loss or any other. But the similarity is a purely exterior one. The acting is too bad to actually induce feeling. The convoy gets ambushed, people die and get mutilated. And all this happens after we have been told that exactly these people are about to go back home. This is repeated so many times that the thickest moviegoer starts to scratch his head thinking: Are they telling me something here? Fate playing tricks is an old theme in war movies, after all it´s one of life´s themes, but usually it is handled with more subtlety.

Next thing, they are all back home. One has lost his best friend, one (a doctor) had to amputate many limbs, one had her hand amputated and now they start to struggle and stumble and fail like the movie.

Sad. They meant well. They wanted to tell us: This should not happen. America shouldn´t meddle. This is not WWII. We won´t get statues and memorials and see people with tears in their eyes still thanking us years later. No, they hate us, they want us out and if we don´t get it, they shoot us up.

A few final words on the actors.

Jessica Biel: Very bad start but then okish.

Samuel L. Jackson: He can’t really be very bad, can he? No, unless he unconvincingly tries to play a drunk. But he has his moments still.

Brian Presley: Who´s that geek? He´d be good in a movie like My Beautiful Laundrette. But only for the looks. Talentwise it´s rather… well…any bad series. Whatever.

Chad Michael Murray: How to get shot and look ridiculous at it. He should keep on making series like  One Tree Hill (not that I´d watch that) or movies like Cinderella Story.

50Cent:  Mumble, mumble, mumble or How do I act without having the tiniest facial muscle move.

Christina Ricci: What the heck were you thinking accepting this role?

The only good thing was the movie´s attempt at showing that medication is no solution to trauma and consequential sleeplessness. It´s in the end no better than drinking. You can´t ignore the trauma, you can´t block it, you have to accept it and  talk about it.

Stop-Loss (2008): The End of Denial or The War that Takes Place in Living rooms

Stop-Loss

“Sand, fleas, flies, heat, boredom. Or you can get shot at. Or blown up. That’s pretty much it. There are sheep on the highway”, says SSgt. Brandon King (a remarkable Ryan Philippe) in Stop-Loss after Steve’s girlfriend tells him that Steve doesn’t talk much about being over there. Brandon doesn’t go into details, he sums it up and turns it into a joke. It’s difficult to talk about it. And not even wanted as his father tells Brandon when he is getting too graphic. There is denial in both camps. Those who stay home do not want to know because they want to believe in their sons/lovers/friends/brothers doing the right thing. To be invulnerable heroes and return as such. Nothing really bad happens over there, right? Soldiers like Steve do not want to talk about it because they simply do not want to think about it. As soon as they start thinking, like Brandon does, the only thing they want is: getting out! And that’s when the trouble begins

Brandon has seen it all. His people dying, being terribly wounded and crippled for life. Dead civilians. The war taking  place in living rooms. He’s done his job. He returns from a completed tour of duty in Iraq a hero and now he wants out. Unfortunately he is stop-lossed. In times of war, when there is no draft and not enough volunteers, the government can stop-loss soldiers, meaning send them back even if they want out.

What begins as a war movie with heavy fighting, interspersed with grunt-video like elements, turns now into a road movie. Brandon wants out and goes AWOL.

He and his best buddies girlfriend Michelle are taking a trip to… A new life with a fake identity or back to where his friends are?

Watch it and you will find out. It should suffice to say that this movie is a character study, a very critical look at what is going on “over there” and a way out of the speechlessness of those involved and those waiting for them. The young men, depicted in this movie are of the kind who rather hit you in the face than voice their uneasiness. They drink, they fight, they like to shoot guns and listen to heavy music. They are self-destructive but loyal friends. They do not have much other professional options but join the army.

The movie’s strength is not only to be highly watchable but to convey a deep feeling of  sadness. Sadness about many things: the loss of naivety,  the governments cheating, the waste of lives and ultimately hope.