Oren Moverman's directorial debut, The Messenger, is the first war movie of the Obama era. The movie is infused with an intellectualness and inclusiveness that would make our president proud. The pathos and humanity of the movie remind me of the film Coming Home and the Walker Percy novel The Moviegoer. With flawless performances from Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson the film feels like a slow camera movement through the communities of a country at war.
I have spent the last eight years of my life opening up the New York Times every morning and hoping to not see a new addition to the Names of the Dead feature wherewith the paper of record records for us the names of our latest military members killed in one of the current wars. Many days, I'm unlucky.
The heart of the film is the relationship between two unlucky but noble men who have been tasked with delivering Next Of Kin Notifications to the families of the war dead. Both men are haunted by their own wars: Harrelson's character by not having experienced enough of it in the 90-91 Gulf War, and Foster's by suffering just too much to keep him alive but among the walking wounded of the Iraq War.
(Full disclosure: Moverman is a friend of mine and I have followed the project since inception.)
As the country frets about the possibility of drawing out further an already long drawn war in Afghanistan, this film should be required viewing for the men and women who are taking part in this conversation and who will ultimately influence President Obama's decision about how many soldiers to send to fight and just what that fight will look like.
Many from the military, including the chief American in theater, General McChrystal, want 40,000 plus troops. Vice President Biden, and reportedly, Ambassador to Afghanistan Eikenberry, are urging a much smaller troop increase that would focus on training an Afghan military that regularly fails in its missions.
The tainted and untrustworthy government of President Karzai threatens to unravel any American gains in the region.
What do we pay for those gains? The Messenger renders in rather splendid dialogue and tight scenes the horrible costs of war: the knock on the door, the family changed forever.
A close friend of mine, a Marine Corps officer, landed in Afghanistan a few days ago for his third combat tour. He's proud to be there, and he knows his men are ready for whatever mission presents. But I know from the pensive visit we had before he deployed, he'd like the entire war to be effective with clear goals, a clear "off ramp," in the current parlance. He's got a lovely wife at home, and he'd rather not make a fourth combat tour in another year or so.
As seen last week in the tragedy at Fort Hood, the wars have landed here on American soil. The toll on military communities is immense, with climbing rates of suicide, domestic violence, divorce, and violent crime.
I'm not foolish enough to think that films or books save peoples lives, but I do know a powerful piece of filmmaking when I see it. And I do know that The Messenger deserves to be a part of the current national dialogue about warfare, about why we fight, and the cost that we as a society are willing to pay for our wars abroad.