Each United States war has produced its own kind of war movie. World War II films generally celebrate the virtues of heroic sacrifice; the Cold War warned against the soul-vampirism of functional Communism; Vietnam showed us the futility of imperialism and the fragility of the human psyche.
What most of these had in common is that they directly dealt with their respective wars and the attendant politics. In other words, there is almost always an underlying judgment ” positive or negative ” about the war’s purpose and resulting justice or injustice.
There have been a few such movies about the Iraq war (“Stop-Loss,” “Body of Lies”). However, over the last year, “The Hurt Locker” and now “The Messenger” have taken a different tack: erasing political judgment and focusing solely on people playing unusual roles on the edges of the war. The film screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Will (Ben Foster, “Pandorum”) is newly stateside after a physically destructive tour in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Various parts of his body have been damaged and rehabbed, including his eyes. His family dead, Will’s only connection to the past is Kelly (Jena Malone, “Into the Wild”), his high-school girlfriend. Sadly, in his absence, she has become engaged to another, more whole man. With only a few months left on his tour, Will’s superiors assign him to a “notification team,” Army-speak for the guys who drive around telling dead soldiers’ families they’re dead.
Will is paired with Tony (Woody Harrelson, “Zombieland”), an Operation Desert Storm-era enlisted man who has never seen much traditional battle, but who has seen more than his share of misery. Will is unenthusiastic about his assignment, and Tony is saddled with convincing Will the job is as important, if not more so, than the business of killing.
Along the way, Will and Tony notify Olivia (Samantha Morton, “Synecdoche, New York”) that her husband is dead. Will, who is beginning to empathize with his customers, takes a slightly unhealthy interest in her. He eventually establishes a tenuous, painful friendship that’s akin to a pair of bruises trying to hug each other; they each desperately need the contact, but it’s just too painful.
After several crisis moments, Will begins to break through the insulating shell the Army has encouraged him to build around himself. The process proves to be contagious, and Tony soon follows.
While the entire movie is engaging and saturated with emotion of one kind or another, the brightest spots come when Will and Tony are working. Each notification scene is more harrowing and suspenseful than any battle scene. Each recipient reacts differently: Some scream and wail, some get angry and spit, and some show distracted kindness.
While not quite as tight overall as “The Hurt Locker,” “The Messenger” deserves more recognition than it’s received. It may not be a genre-defining example, but it definitely stands out as one of the best movies about our country’s current collective war experience. “Mike Robertson