Oscar-nominated if underpraised while in theaters, Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger” is by far the most mature and moving film made yet about the Iraqi invasion, even if Iraqis themselves don’t even make an appearance as figures mentioned in battle stories. It’s a telling, ethically vibrant film, and for Americans to manage such a thing while a war is still happening is kind of a miracle. The films made during World War II can largely be excused as propaganda, and it took until the mid-50s, with “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and Robert Aldrich’s definitive “Attack!” (1956), for American film to express the sense of trauma and unhappy cost that any authentic pop characterization of war must command. With the exception of Samuel Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet,” released in 1951 less than four months after American troops crossed the 38th parallel, it took almost four years for The Korean War to be reground into drama, message and regret, starting with Anthony Mann’s “Men in War” (1957). The Vietnam-American War, as we well know, was crazy televised, and yet, putting aside a few pungent docs and one risible agitprop orgasm (John Wayne’s 1968 “The Green Berets”), three years had to pass after the last airlift before the bandages could come off and we permitted ourselves to finger the scabs and scars.
It may just be that a little distance, a little grieving and acclimation, is necessary, for the viewers to accept the showbiz manhandling of their pain and ambivalence, and the image-makers to figure how to do it with some kind of perspective. Of course, the problem with the Iraq war is that although it hasn’t ended, it seems to have ended, sort of, fading from the headlines in lieu of Obamacare, Afghanistan, earthquakes and oil spills. Moverman’s movie is a homefront war movie, with a difference – unlike others in the “Best Years of Our Lives” paradigm, this isn’t about the discomfiture of soldiers returning to civilianhood, but about the task of manning the homefront by reporting the dead to their families. We think Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is merely a buttoned-down battle case when he glowers at his reassignment after coming home wounded, and like him, the film is realigning the war-movie priorities – there’s combat, but then there’s the result, Moverman is saying, families with holes in them, keening parents, shattered wives, orphaned children. The showbiz idea that war may be hell but it’s fun to watch, too — inherent in so many American war movies, including “The Hurt Locker” — is abandoned. Instead, the moral costs are confronted head-on, in your face, on some stranger’s doorstep.
Montgomery turns out to be both less and more than we expected, and Moverman seems hyperaware of how we second-guess military characters in stress situations, because he dodges the clichés at every step. Woody Harrelson’s Stone, Montgomery’s commanding officer, is another stereotype that begins to shed onion layers – by the middle of the film, after harrowing house visit after house visit, the two men are as complicated by rage and secrets and shame and vulnerability as any that an American independent film has produced in years.
The story follows their tentative bonding, and Montgomery’s impulsive attraction to a young widow (the amazing Samantha Morton) after she reacts very differently to the soldiers’ news than they expect her to. But Moverman’s achievement is more on the micro-level: the time spent absorbing wholesale grief (Moverman’s camera is always ready to hang back and give the victims air, while Foster’s hardass always wells up with tears but freezes), the conversations full of unspoken intention, the rhythms of scenes as the characters, responding to disaster, hunt internally for ways to react. And the acting is razor-sharp, right down to Steve Buscemi as a soldier’s father, upping the film’s ante in his pivotal scene, and then raising it again later, unexpectedly. Overall, there’s a sense of tender responsibility in “The Messenger” that feels like a tall glass of ice water in an arid modern movie culture most often overrun with simplism (that’s a real word, and a good one) and idiot noise.