The problem with most of the movies that have come out so far about our misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan is one of politics. There is such an aura of confusion and waste around the Iraq war that when filmmakers try to take it on, they inevitably want to drag out their soapbox. The problem is: War on the ground — in my non-serving understanding of it, and I apologize in advance to all the combat vets I'm about to offend — is not politics. It is not ballot boxes and speeches and guys dressed in suits telling the little guy they feel sorry for him and want to better his lot in life. It is not all the completely civilized things we in this society are able to do because some are willing to pick up a gun and trade a piece of their humanity to meet the aims of their country. War, in my understanding, is this: People barely old enough to get a drink advancing under fire. It is young men and women killing other young men and women and then being forced to live with it. It is some of them getting shot in the liver and dying slowly in the dust. Trying to paste a political message onto that is like trying to put a hat on a mule: It might work for awhile, but it ain't gonna stay on for long. The best films about war understand that, I think, and it has been the case with the better films about Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mark up another one in the “better” category with the new film “The Messenger,” which debuts this week at Market Street Cinema. A film that deals with the war only insomuch as it deals with the product of war and how it impacts the homefront, it's a lovely but somber recitation on a problem that has vexed human society ever since Homer put pen to paper and wrote “The Odyssey.” Specifically: Once you've made young men comfortable walking with Death, how do you make them fathers and husbands and neighbors again?
The story follows Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (the underrated Ben Foster). After getting wounded and later commended for an act of amazing heroism under fire in Iraq, Montgomery is rotated back to the States to undergo medical treatment for his eyes and leg, which were hurt in the blast. As the story opens, Montgomery's former girlfriend — who he broke up with so she wouldn't have to go through the grief of the death he was sure was coming for him in Iraq — has just told him she's engaged to be married to another man. With that hanging on his mind, Montgomery's commanding officer approaches him with a job that sounds like a nightmare for anyone: to be part of his area's casualty information team — the guys who dress up in their best uniform to go to people's houses — fathers, mothers, wives, children — to tell the next of kin that their loved one is dead. Montgomery is paired with an old hand at the job, Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a twitchy recovering alcoholic who clearly should have quit the job years before, but can't. Filmed documentary-style, a good bit of the movie follows Montgomery and Stone from house to house as they make their sad rounds. Death stops everywhere in a war, and it does so here as well, from ratty walk-up apartments to quiet homes in the suburbs. On one of these trips, they're called on to tell a woman named Olivia (Samantha Morton) about the death of her husband. For whatever reason, the emotionally fragile Montgomery is fixated on what happens to her and her newly fatherless son. After that, he engages in one of the most complicated on-screen relationships I've seen in awhile.
Ben Foster is great here in a very demanding role that calls on him to create a character that is mentally broken but retains a shell of anger as dense as Kevlar. Watching him navigate the murky waters of Montgomery's return to society is a sight to behold, and definitely worth the price of the ticket. Equally good is Woody Harrelson, who has made a career out of playing slimy-but-somehow-lovable rednecks with a chip on their shoulder. His Stone — a veteran of the first Iraq war who laments not getting shot at — is a real treat; sometimes funny, sometimes intense, but always spot on. Less successful is Samantha Morton, but only because she plays Olivia in such a reserved and quiet way that you literally couldn't hear what she was saying sometimes. As a viewer, there were moments when I just wanted her to get mad — at God, at the world, at Montgomery. Another gem is Steve Buscemi, in a knockout cameo as a suburbanite father whose teen-age son died in Iraq. Buscemi has always been a great character actor, but this bitter little turn, full of so much emotion and pain, was enough to pin me back in my seat.
“The Messenger” isn't the feel-good hit of the year, but if you're looking for one of the films that will tell the tale of this war and its aftermath in coming years, this is probably a good place to start.
— David Koon