My situation is right now! Not five years from now, not two years from
now, not next year, not next month, it's right now!
- Herold Noel, a homeless Iraq War veteran, roughly 5 minutes into
When I Came Home
End In Sight is the best film yet to be produced on the
effects of the Iraq War on the Iraqi people, then Dan Lohaus' href=" http://www.whenicamehome.com">When I Came Home is the
best film yet to be produced on the US troops who fought that war. Not
that there's much competition - the Iraq war is much like the Vietnam
War, in that no matter how one views Hollywood's politics, it's hard
to deny that there haven't been a lot of films about Iraq
during the war itself. Barring one or two documentaries, the films
about the Middle East made in the last few years almost invariably
limit themselves to other conflicts (e.g. the brilliant
Syriana, the href=" http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=1624">decidedly
less brilliant The Kingdom).
Consider - more wide-release films, by a sizable margin, have been
made about the Gulf War, in which the US campaign lasted a mere 42
days, than about the Iraq War, where US involvement is approaching
five years. Hollywood, it seems, is much less likely to sponsor
fictional films about a war that provides little room for cheering.
(Granted, it could be more of a comment on the larger media
environment of the last few years - at one point in the film, decrying
the lack of media interest in seriously dealing with homeless Iraq War
veterans, Noel asks if they might care more if he was Brad Pitt.)
But I digress. I suspect that, even if accompanied with a number of
Iraq War films appropriate to the War's effect on our national
conversation, When I Came Home would still be one of the best
(if not the best) films on the topic.
The aforementioned Noel is the subject of the film, which follows him
and his toddler through a rough (to say the least) year of
homelessness in NYC after a seven-month tour of duty in Iraq ends in
Post-Trauamatic Stress Syndrome. We cringe as Noel, who lives in a
Jeep, is passed like a hot potato through a Kafkaesque mass of city,
state and federal agencies which seemingly made no preparations to
deal with the increased influx of troops. He doesn't want to expose
his son to the squalor of the shelters - but he won't get Section-8
federal assistance without living in the shelters for a substantial
period of time. The VA conclusively confirms that he has PTSD - while
simultaneously denying him disability-status. And so on.
But then, something happens - someone has a connection to the NY Post,
they do a cover story on Noel, and all of a sudden, he's designated by
all sorts of media outlets as a voice for a new generation of homeless
veterans. And here is where When I Came Home gets really
Lohaus' brilliance is knowing exactly how we expect this story to turn
out - Noel gets his story out there, finds help, gets his life back in
order, and becomes an inspiring figure, rallying for recognition of
homeless veterans everywhere. He knows that we desperately want this,
need this, after the lachrymose first half of the film. So when it
doesn't happen as a result of the media exposure, Lohaus knows
precisely how to subtly tweak our expectatis and then dash them.
When I Came Home is not a perfect film - it is far too
unfocused for its own good at times, zipping to bits with volunteers
for veteran-assistance organizations as well as to other homeless
veterans as if to convince us that these people are also doing
good work, these people are also in a bad place - and we do
leave these sections convinced of such, but only in an intellectual
way, the same way Alaskans know that Ecuador is warm. For us to
emotionally, viscerally know a truth, as we do when the camera is
focused on Noel...that is a much rarer thing, and as mensch-like as it
is for Lohaus to cover these stories as well, he would have served the
film better by focusing exclusively on Noel. While these shifts don't
defang the film, it's at best a distraction, and at worst threatens to
reverse its momentum.
In the end, however, it is a minor point in the face of the main
narrative's power. If you are concerned with how this nation treats
its veterans, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
It's spoiling nothing to note that the last shot of When I Came
Home is an extreme close-up on a set of hands, dithering,
fidgeting, not quite sure what to do next. It's a testament to Lohaus
that having spent the entirety of the film frustrated by inaction,
those hands - those unsure, inert hands - bother us far, far more than
they have any right to.