Friday, January 08, 2010
For nearly 10 years, the United States has been at war, yet you barely see evidence of it at home. Aside from the occasional yellow ribbon magnet on a passing car or an article about another roadside attack in Afghanistan or Iraq, war has been largely sanitized in our culture. I'm not sure we have ever reached this level of disconnect between our two realities- the one here and the one "over there." This is a trend I find very disturbing.
And the filmmakers of THE MESSENGER seem to feel the same way. This film follows two soldiers who serve in the Army's Casualty Notification service. They personally visit a fallen soldier's next-of-kin and inform them of their loss. You can imagine the anguish that this film portrays on an immediate level. Beyond that, THE MESSENGER explores the reality for troops who return home alive- alive but not necessarily well. Ben Foster, who plays SSG Will Montgomery, is a survivor of an attack on his platoon in Iraq. With only 3 months left on his commitment to Uncle Sam, Will gets recruited stateside to work with Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Stone is an aptly named stoic, exhorting Will to abide by a series of strict rules in performing their task- chief among them being no touching the "NOK" (next-of-kin). Will is a stern young man who seems fit to the task in the beginning, but when they visit one particular widow, Olivia (played by Samantha Morton), his guard is let down and he becomes drawn to her emotionally and physically.
While the relationship between Will and the Olivia is a focal point, there is a lot more going on in this movie. The aftermath of war is the main theme of THE MESSENGER. It isn't just about the families who have lost loved ones in battle, it's also a story about those who go to war in the first place. Watching this film, I was reminded of a college friend who served in the Navy. He was completely unassuming, and didn't give off the aura of a "soldier" or "sailor" on the surface, but once you got him talking about his time in the service, you could see a change come over him. He often talked about how people who serve feel like they exist in a different world from civilians. In some ways, he said, it was like they were an elite group- with elite training, discipline and physical strength. It makes sense given the requirements they are faced with fulfilling, but that idea always made me question whether enough of us "civilians" truly understand the minds and hearts of our troops.
Now, more than ever, two societies exist in America- the military and the civilian. And it is the "military society" which bears an ever-increasing burden for the wars we wage. Whereas during World War II, when civilians were forced to help the war effort through food rationing and surrendering raw materials to the government, today we are spared from making any true sacrifices. And it's not a judgment on us that I'm making here, just an observation- one that this film helped to stir in my mind.
THE MESSENGER is an extremely worthwhile look into military life. The acting, screenplay and direction are excellent. While this is a serious film, there are very funny moments in places you would least expect to find. These characters exist in a very real sense. The relationship between Will and Olivia is not conventionally told and that marks one of this movie's strongest (and most realistic) storytelling points too. This is a tough film, but one I highly recommend.