11/10/2009 07:27 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movie review: The Messenger delivers

Films about the folly of the Iraq War have been such box-office poison that it's tempting to automatically upgrade any film that shows the toll this pointless, seemingly endless conflict for what it is - as a waste of life and a burden on survivors - just for daring to tell the truth.

Not that it would make a difference. With the exception of this year's The Hurt Locker, which had to go out of its way not to seem like a movie about Iraq, virtually every film about Iraq - good, bad, fiction and documentary - has died a miserable death in theaters. I tend to think it has less to do the movies' flaws or merits and more to do with a national sense of shame and denial - at allowing ourselves to be suckered by George W. Bush and his ruthless shills into supporting the quagmire/fiasco.

It will be too bad if that same fate awaits Oren Moverman's The Messenger, as powerful and restrained a drama as you could wish for. Iraq is a presence but it's never shown. Indeed, this is a drama that could have used any war as its context and made the same point: that all war ends tragically for too many, no matter what the objective or outcome.

Ben Foster plays Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, decorated and shipped home after being wounded in Iraq. Assigned to the motor pool, he also has drawn a special duty: as a casualty notification officer, tasked with informing the next-of-kin of soldiers who have been killed in action.

His new partner is the feisty Capt. Tony Stony (Woody Harrelson), a veteran of the detail who quickly briefs Will on the job. They have to get to the family as quickly as possible, so the family won't hear about it from the media or someone else. They cannot engage emotionally with those they are notifying. They don't hug or otherwise touch them. And they don't react if they are touched. Get in, do the job with honor, get out. Follow the script.

The job, however, is as emotionally draining in its way as combat. Given the opportunity, the people to whom they deliver this grim news would gladly kill these messengers, if it meant bringing their loved one back. Or if it could muffle the sudden searing pain they are feeling, by projecting it on to someone else. Continued...

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