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Film Review

The Messenger

With the ending of the draft in 1973, and the shift to an all volunteer armed forces, few Americans now have any experience or contact with our military, or even know anyone in the active military. Most know it now, to the extent that they can know it, only through television or films. Economic class is an issue as well, especially in this downturn. Some enlist because they are patriotic, but many enlist because they need a job and see the military as a path to education, which it often is. The consequence is that the American public has largely lost touch with the small segment of our society that protects us, often at great cost. In this powerful and dramatic film by the Israeli director, Oren Moverman, who was himself an officer in the Israeli army, we see part of that cost, the cost to the families of those that died.

The Messenger is about a two man Army death notification team, which is how the Army now notifies the next of kin that their loved one has died, typically in combat. Personal notification, not the WW II era telegram, has been the procedure, beginning with Vietnam. Woody Harrelson plays Captain Stone (well named), a tough, experienced notification officer at Fort Dix, who is assigned a young sergeant, Montgomery, played by Ben Foster. Montgomery, severely wounded in Iraq and awarded several medals, has just recovered from his wounds and only has about 4 months left before his enlistment expires. He doesn't want to do this, but choice is often not an option in the military. Stone explains the procedure to Montgomery, which includes never parking directly in front of the house, only speaking directly to the next of kin, not showing emotion, never touching or hugging the person, no matter how distressed, telling them that a Casualty Assistance Officer will be there shortly, asking if they need any immediate help, and leaving promptly. And, he cautions, they should never ever discuss what they do with others.

The first notification by this new team is to a mother, whose daughter-in-law answers the door, anxiously asking why they are there. The daughter is pregnant. The mother comes downstairs, and immediately knows why. Stone begins to deliver his message: "The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform you ....." The mother cries, screams at the men, the daughter collapses, and they leave. Few scenes in any film have been more powerful. Montgomery goes back to his small apartment, listens to loud music, eats a meal out of a can, and drinks a beer. It soon becomes clear that Montgomery, outwardly healthy, is wounded inside. Stone, really a lonely, damaged man, begins to like Montgomery, and they end up paling around together. Just as no one can really know what it means to be in combat, other than someone who has actually experienced it, the two of them have this duty that few others do, that although unspoken, bonds them closely. In one notification, they walk past a playground filled with mothers and their children, talking and laughing, but as the mothers see the men walk by, they know, fall silent, stare, and are thankful the team is not walking up to their house. Other notifications follow, all intense and moving, but after Montgomery delivers his message to a mother (played by Samantha Morton) with a young boy, he returns, and begins to watch her from a distance. She is unaware of this until he stops in to see if she needs some help. She is wary, and has her own, surprising story. I don't want to say more. This is basically a three person film, and all give outstanding performances that will surely get Oscar nominations. The camera work is well done, sometimes with handheld cameras, but always accomplished.

The Messenger is often wrenching, always powerful, yet understated, with a real insight into something that few Americans will experience. Few of us truly understand the cost of war, and to our collective shame, with little protest, allowed a recent President to ban any photography that shows the coffins being unloaded from transport planes. They died for us, in wars of our choice, often the wrong choices, and we can at least honor them by watching them come home. The Messenger joins some excellent films about the Iraq/Afghan War, such as The Hurt Locker, that might seem to be simple war films, but in fact are outspokenly anti-war. They speak a truth that we should heed: if you are going to send a man to die, it should be for an awfully good reason. Just opened at the Metreon, but hopefully will screen at other theaters.

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