‘Messenger’ delivers personal effects of war
December 24, 2009
ASPEN – In Israel, military service is essentially mandatory for all non-Arab citizens over the age of 18. Throughout the country, the sight of young men and women in uniform, guns over their shoulders, is as ubiquitous as falafel stands.
“The military is the center of society,” Oren Moverman, a 43-year-old Israeli native, said. “Everyone has a personal stake in what happens; it’s connected to every aspect of life. When everyone serves, it becomes very personal, immediately.”
Since moving to the U.S. 21 years ago, Moverman has paid more attention to building a career as a screenwriter than the social dynamics of his native country. He had a bit of a breakthrough when he co-wrote the 1999 film “Jesus’ Son,” which starred Billy Crudup as a recovering drug addict, won a handful of festival awards, and earned acclaim in the indie-film world. Moverman’s most notable credit to date was co-writing “I’m Not There,” the brilliantly idiosyncratic quasi-biopic of Bob Dylan. Moverman is quick to point out, however, that that project was largely the vision of director and co-writer Todd Haynes. “He brought me in when he was lost in the wilderness, to kind of bring him back home,” Moverman said.
Moverman’s other screen work – “Married Life,” a 2007 film that mixed film noir with romantic intrigue; and “Face,” a 2002 movie about an Asian-American family in Queens, N.Y. – has likewise kept its distance from military matters.
“It wasn’t on my mind. It probably was the furthest thing from my mind,” Moverman said by phone from his home in Manhattan’s Flatiron District.
In this, Moverman was the typical American. Even as the country is fighting two long-enduring wars, the strategies and merits of which are constantly being debated, even Moverman, a former soldier himself, was able to keep the people fighting those wars out of his consciousness. Then, about four years ago, he had a conversation with Alessandro Camon, a producer who had worked on such films as “Thank You for Smoking” and “American Psycho.”
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“He brought up casualty notification” – the practice of informing survivors that a family member has died in military service – “and how personal images of the war have been kept away from the public,” Moverman said. “We said, let’s use casualty notification as a way into how war is hidden from people.”
Out of that talk, Moverman and Camon created “The Messenger,” which focuses tightly on the American military – the scars left on those who have fought, and more so, the damage inflicted back home on those who have received the distressing news that their loved ones won’t be returning. Ben Foster stars as Will Montgomery, a sergeant who accepts, under protest, an assignment on the casualty notification team. Montgomery has proved himself nail-tough in battle, but the prospect of appearing on a doorstep to tell fathers, mothers, wives and children that their family members are dead shakes him in a way that bullets and bombs do not.
Montgomery is paired with Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), who is, in significant ways, a mirror image of Will. Stone is rock-hard physically, and puts on a front of being similarly indestructible emotionally. But Stone, like Will, is emotionally frail, an alcoholic who tempts himself with bars, booze and sexual flings. Stone drills Montgomery in the art of casualty notification, and tries to make it as antiseptic an encounter as possible: no touching, no lingering, no saying you’re sorry. It’s a “get-in, get-out mission,” Stone tells Montgomery. But Will finds it impossible, and unnatural, to keep such a distance, and he becomes involved with a war widow played by Samantha Morton.
It’s a reflection of America’s stance toward its soldiers – keep the contact to a minimum – which Moverman finds unnatural and unhealthy.
“Shockingly, almost criminally, there aren’t a lot of works dealing face-to-face with this, in a personal way,” Moverman said about the shortage of films addressing the personal side of war. “There’s not a lot of attention paid to returning soldiers and the effects on their families,” he added, noting how images of funerals and coffins have been kept well away from the public realm.
As he started on the script for “The Messenger,” Moverman didn’t feel an especially personal stake in the subject matter. That changed after he began research, which included visiting the Army’s casualty notification center in Arlington, Va., and speaking with people who did casualty notification and soldiers who made it back from war.
“Walking on their path with them, you can’t help but become passionate about the issue. It brought me into a personal space,” he said. “I wanted to shine a light on these people who fought in our wars.”
“The Messenger” – which shows at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 26 at Harris Hall, in Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings series – is affecting Moverman on another level. It is his first directorial effort, and he is earning attention as a filmmaker to be watched. Moverman won the Spotlight Award, given to first-time directors by the National Board of Review. His handling of actors is particularly notable. Ben Foster, who has appeared in “3:10 to Yuma” and “X-Men: The Last Stand,” is outstanding. But even he may be overshadowed by Woody Harrelson, who was named best supporting actor by the National Board of Review, and is nominated by the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild.
Another achievement of “The Messenger” is how it stays away from politics. The film is devoutly pro-military; that is, it exists to show compassion for soldiers and their families. But it doesn’t take a stance on the wisdom of America’s current military involvements. That tends to give it a timelessness: There will always be the devastating news that another life has been lost in war.
“Unfortunately, this movie is good for this war, and the one after this,” Moverman said.
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Moverman’s view that not many contemporary films have looked at the personal side of war may have come to an end in 2009. The Academy Screenings series offers two additional films that do the subject justice.
“Brothers” (showing Friday, Jan. 1, at 8:15 p.m.) is director Jim Sheridan’s adaptation of the award-winning 2004 Danish film of the same title. Sheridan has dealt before with a different sort of war – the Irish troubles – in “The Boxer” and “In the Name of the Father.” Here, he turns his attention to America. In a Golden Globe-nominated performance, Tobey Maguire stars as Sam Cahill, a captain who is put in an intolerable situation while serving in Afghanistan. Returning home to discover his wife (Natalie Portman) has developed a friendly relationship with his ne’er-do-well brother (Jake Gyllenhaal), Sam becomes unglued.
In “The Hurt Locker” (Jan. 2, at 5:15 p.m.), director Kathryn Bigelow delivers an action-packed war movie that focuses on bomb-squad technicians in Baghdad. In addition to the pulse-racing scenes, the film – starring Jeremy Renner, Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes – also meditates on heroism, bravado and sacrifice. One of the most acclaimed films of the year, “The Hurt Locker” has earned the top award from both the New York and Los Angeles critics’ groups.
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Also showing this weekend in the Academy Screenings series:
“The Last Station” (Saturday, Dec. 26, at 8:15 p.m.): This British film juxtaposes an enduring romance – that of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and his wife of 48 years – with a younger love. The film, starring Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti, is up for two Golden Globe Awards.
“Bright Star” (Sunday, Dec. 27, at 5:15 p.m.): Writer-director Jane Campion (“The Piano”) returns after a long absence with the romantic tale of poet John Keats and his seamstress neighbor.
“The Lovely Bones” (Sunday, Dec. 27, at 8:15 p.m.): Peter Jackson takes a sharp turn from his “Lord of the Rings” series to direct an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-selling novel. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as a 14-year-old girl who narrates her own murder. Stanley Tucci, who received Aspen Film’s Independent by Nature Award at Aspen Filmfest 2009 in October, earned a Golden Globe nomination for his supporting role as the murderer, George Harvey.
The Academy Screenings series continues with daily presentations Saturday, Dec. 26 through Jan. 2. All films are at Harris Hall. For a complete program, go to aspenfilm.org.