The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Messenger

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article Films about the Iraq War are increasingly breaking into two major strands, both of which can be compared to similar subgenres of films about Vietnam. The down-with-the-grunts action movie in Iraq might have a disenchanted political edge like Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone (2009), or might eschew politics more or less entirely, as did, for instance, The Hurt Locker (2008). But both films eulogise an individual in the professional army who is there because he chooses to be there, perhaps even regardless of the justness or otherwise of his mission. This is a world of competence in the face of danger, being good at your job, outstanding even. The outside world is glimpsed, if at all, as vaguely dissatisfying. The exception to this would be Brain De Palma’s messy but compellingly strange Redacted (2007), which seeks to create a more radical and morally queasy response. In the Vietnam films Platoon (1986), Hamburger Hill (1987) and When We Were Soldiers (2002), volunteers appear as exceptional cases. Charlie Sheen’s character in Platoon is greeted with incredulity and amusement when he admits to having volunteered. “Why are we here?” is a question often voiced, and the Col. Kilgores of the world, who love the smell of napalm in the morning, are half-mad enthusiasts.

The second strand comes at the war from a different angle: the home front, outside the war and a bit to one side. The collateral damage, the friendly fire, and the general picking up of the pieces becomes the central focus of the drama in films such as Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs (2007), Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Jim Sheridan’s Brothers (2009). These films begin to look more and more like the coming home films of the seventies: Henry Jaglom’s Tracks (1977), parts of The Deer Hunter (1978) and, naturally, Coming Home (1978). Here, the violence perpetrated in South East Asia insidiously rotates back to the ‘real world’ to pollute the familial, sexual and wider social relationships of the protagonists, and occasionally to explode murderously. The crazy Vietnam vet losing it (Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Stallone’s John Rambo are perhaps the ripest examples) has become such a cliché that movies such as Ang Lee’s recent Taking Woodstock (2009) are able to use the figure as a stock comedy character.

No such danger is yet apparent for the Iraq veteran, who in a world of anti-depressants, post-traumatic stress disorder and counselling, is yet to properly blow his stack. In The Messenger our soldiers are two men who genuinely do not fit into society, but this might be only partly to do with their war experience. To begin with, Capt. Stone - the senior loquacious grizzled army man who claims to have had his “baptism of fire”, and who glibly compares the whoring experiences of the different wars - it turns out is like Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005): never having got to shoot his wad, militarily speaking. This revelation, which comes near the end of the film, might generously be seen as an attempt to deconstruct notions of military bravado, reducing Stone as a character from a sub-Jack Nicholson wild man (think The Last Detail [1974]) to a pitiful shambles of a man propping himself up with lies and unearned pretentions; but it comes as an underwhelming confession, unworthy of the emotional weight with which it is freighted.

Even Will, the young ‘war hero’ who admits finally to suicidal thoughts, recounts an episode which is appalling and terrible, but also unsurprising, given that he went to war. When the two characters clash most openly with the society that they seem to have become estranged from - an unseen bout of fisticuffs with some snotty frat-boys and the gate crashing of the wedding of Will’s ex-(but not that ex-) girlfriend - it is hard quite to work out where our sympathies are supposed to lie. Generically, we’re with the soldiers, because we’ve followed them throughout the film and they have suffered, and, like, been in The Shit (except they actually haven’t both been there). Yet these aren’t the wide-eyed volunteers of The Deer Hunter, or the dumb, numb draftees of Full Metal Jacket (1987) - innocents being shorn during the title sequence like so many lambs to the slaughter. These are professional soldiers: volunteers. And their grief and tantrums resound hollowly compared to the more immediate grief they routinely perpetrate as they go from house to house offering their condolences on behalf of the Secretary of War.

In a way, these victims of the war are those most neglected by war films. The parents who lose their children and the widowed wives, left holding fatherless children, don’t get to tough it out, smash up bars and have meaningless angry sex. And yet their grief is real and so visceral that in one scene a father vomits upon guessing the truth when confronted by Will, accidentally and ham-fistedly in the local grocery store. The one father who does react angrily, a wonderful scene-stealing cameo from Steve Buscemi, turns up later to apologise for behaving badly. These are decent, uncomprehending people suffering unimaginable loss. And this is where the film latches on to another recent spate of films which deal not with death (that most un-taboo of taboo subjects), but rather with grief.

Grief as a topic has come out of the shadows a little bit of late. In 2001 two films came out dealing with a family recovering from the loss of a son: Nanni Moretti’s Cannes triumph La Stanza del Figlio and the more melodramatic treatment of In the Bedroom. More recently, Rabbit Hole (2010) and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter (2010) have also dealt with loss, although in very differing ways. However, in these treatments there is an attempt to negotiate with grief - to find a way to accommodate grief and to find, in that awful phrase, some kind of ‘closure’. As Eastwood’s film boldly grasps for some kind of belief in a secular afterlife, the best Matt Damon’s reluctant mystic can finally come up with is a surrender to the unknowable and a stern imperative to get on with life.

The Messenger is different in that it deals with another kind of grief industry: not mystics and séances, or self-help groups, but the military. The attempt to assuage and offer comfort to the families of the violently deceased is in direct conflict with the military’s own complicity in what caused that death. The anger that these bearers of bad news are met with is all too understandable, and both Will and Stone seem to take to their task because they basically feel they deserve the punishment meted out. There’s a sense of self-flagellation as they try to keep their blank expressions in the face of the raw emotion their task has provoked.

Stone is the most outspoken propagandist of the army. He insists on a kind of intricate professionalism when it comes to exactly how they go about delivering the news, as careful as The Hurt Locker’s bomb disposal expert to cut the right wires in the right sequence. This early part of the film is the strongest, since it gives the viewer something like a documentarian’s insight into a hitherto unknown and unsuspected world. Will and Capt. Stone are at first glance an almost clichéd pairing: the older and the younger, the wise and the naive, the experienced and the inexperienced, the new boy and the man ready to retire. But several of these categories have been mixed up in unexpected ways. It is Will the young man, who is actually the more experienced. And it is he who is also coming to the end of his tour. Whereas Will is the jaded, old man of the piece, Stone has the naïve positive outlook of the army. However, Stone’s championing of the military as a large protective family that only tells lies to sustain and support necessary myths, is a hopelessly compromised vision from a man who needs the army far more than the army, in all likelihood, needs him.

This Alternate Take was published on May 16, 2011.

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