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The Army owns your life, your death and your memory

A Failure Of Communication


The Messenger – Oren Moverman

Army ownership is eternal. They own your body and a significant chunk of your mind in life; they own your death, from the event through to your funeral and burial; and they own your memory – the how and why you died; the what and why of your life. Even the Church does not impose such a controlled narrative on the life, death and soul of human beings.

I find myself wondering, especially with regard to the American military which is the specific context of this film; whether any bereaved wives and children; or parents of sons and daughters, brave the overwhelming moral pressure of the military and the nation it serves, by refusing the honour guard, the gun salute, the folding of the flag and say “no – you had his life but his death is ours”; even more, “his memory is ours – not the Army’s or the Nation’s”.  This would be hard, even courageous in the face of the almost irresistible invitation to the solace of public recognition of heroism and sacrifice.  Yet brave men and women die accidentally, through grotesque mistakes in worthy conflicts; needlessly in pointless wars; and tragically in politically misguided, even illegal, wars.  It is an all too common, obscene non-sequitur of many politicians to move from the true honour due to all men and women willing to put their lives at risk for others, to the false implication of support for and legitimacy of, the conflict that killed them.  How shall grieving parents cope with the death of their son by friendly fire; or the wife of a reluctant soldier returned unfairly to combat outside normal rules of rotation simply because of manpower shortages or political expediency?

This unsettling film provokes many such questions and more: the problem is, its moral tone is so uneven that I for one cannot make up my mind whether it is appallingly crass, patronising and exploitative; or subversively subtle in its apparently detached, non-judgmental representation of how the Army deals with the task of communicating soldiers’ deaths in action to their closest relatives.  Certainly we would be horrified if say a Policeman, a Doctor, or a Nurse were to communicate the death of a loved one with such a brutal lack of empathy and repressed terror of any form of expression of feeling or emotion as evidenced by the rigorous protocol exercised by the experienced Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and reluctant new boy, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster).

Montgomery, badly hurt from a combat injury is drafted to partner Stone in the Casualty Notification Team where traumatised relatives are referred to as NOK’s (next of kin) with whom above all else, no physical contact must occur, but who in a macabre misunderstanding of sensitivity, must be spared the use of words like ‘body’ or ‘remains’.  This is a semantic minefield as Stone indicates when he warns against euphemisms like ‘he’s no longer with us’ which apparently led one mother to pillory her dead son because she thought he had defected to the enemy.

To echo my opening: not only is army ownership eternal – it is also comprehensive, for it is clear from the underlying rationale of the brisk, efficient notification protocol, that the bereaved are expected themselves behave in a no-nonsense military fashion first to the news of the death but also in their behaviour in its aftermath, notably the military funeral.

One thing about Woody Harrelson – he does a great Woody Harrelson: nowadays bullet-headed, aggressively macho and threatening. Much of the time his Captain Stone is a semi-ex-alcoholic, lecherous know-it-all pig you wouldn’t allow anywhere a corpse let alone its surviving relatives.  In contrast, writers Moverman and Alessandro Camon, try to show Stone as also gruffly wise, even perceptive.  All I can say is that Harrelson’s macho lecherous pig is far more convincing than this unconvincing alter ego.   Any sympathy we have for this character pretty much evaporates when we find that unlike the diminutive Montgomery, Stone has been in combat zones but never seen combat: an omission that reduces him to self-indulgent sobs in response to Montgomery’s harrowing account of how he was injured.  And a whingeing “all I ever wanted was to be shot at by someone” is more bathetic than tragic.

Foster’s grasp of Montgomery is better but when he seems authentic, he unfortunately also becomes deeply unlikeable; pining over his long-time girlfriend whom, after a desultory, welcome home shag, he shovels into a taxi apparently so he can start obsessing about the idea of being in love with her rather than the physical reality of making love to her.  It’s a small thing but I can’t get over the thought that the way Foster’s Montgomery shovels food into his mouth is a clunky effort at appearing ‘working class’ and ‘enlisted man-ish’.  I know plenty of ordinary guys who can use a knife and fork and manage one mouthful at a time.

Mongomery begins to break the rules when he is drawn to newly widowed Olivia (a resolutely dowdy Samantha Morton).  The scenes between Morton and Foster are among the best in the film, perhaps because they are the most restrained and thoughtful.  Morton manages to convey well a morally torn widow – drawn to the kindness and tender respect with which Montgomery treats her, apparently beyond anything her deceased husband ever showed.  Foster’s playing also improves when sharing scenes with Morton; probably because he doesn’t have to battle with Harrelson’s flamboyance to be noticed.  The flaws in leading performances are also emphasised by an assured and convincing cameo by Steve Buscemi as a bereaved father.

On the whole I think a promising idea that does not live up to its promise: through miscasting and uneven writing.  It seems to me to be a patronising stereotype to portray men recovering from the profound affects, even trauma, of the horrors of war as if they never have a personal moral core or independent self at all.  Contrast Stone and Montgomery with Tommy Lee Jones’s Hank Deerfield in the much, much better The Valley of Elah.  Older, yes; with his days of combat in the past, but still following the self-disciplines derived from a life in the military in a way that though we may not share them, we cannot help but respect and recognise as an honourable way to approach the challenges of life.

My hunch is that the actual men in the Casualty Notification Team will feel angry at their portrayal here even though the actual protocol shown may be accurate.  That absolutely everything in this process is as profoundly misguided as it is possible to be as a way to deal with bereaved human beings, says more about the Military requirement to suppress and control emotion than it does about how to genuinely honour our dead soldiers or comfort their loved ones.





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