Return from Hell
Look, this isn’t Letters from Iwo Jima or Saving Private Ryan. It’s not one of the greatest war movies ever made. But it’s a story that needs to be told, that hasn’t yet been told yet, that many Americans don’t even realize they haven’t heard. The 3000th American soldier has just been killed in Iraq, and images of their coffins returning home are deliberately withheld from us. Our so-called leaders offer only constantly shifting rationales for their deaths, when they speak of the dead at all. And then there are the tens of thousands of wounded, some of whom will be coping with life-altering injuries for the rest of their lives.
That’s the reality of Home of the Brave. Sure, it’s earnest — sure, it’s melodramatic. Yup, it’s just barely this side of being a made-for-Lifetime TV soaper. But there’s a mesmerizing power to this little film that comes from its sheer un-told-ness, from its right-now immediacy. There’s none of the irony or sarcasm of, say, M*A*S*H — we’re still too close to this to joke about it. There’s none of the flag-waving of, say, Flags of Our Fathers — we’ve yet to hear a convincing argument for the sacrifice of our soldiers, one that would allow for the balm of patriotism to soothe the grief or the anger over lost lives. Here is simply the urgent certainty of what soliders returning from Iraq are dealing with here and now.
There’s an old-fashioned sensibility at work here — think the post-WWII melodrama The Best Years of Our Lives — but this could also be happening at no time but today: One of our veterans is Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel: The Illusionist, Stealth), a truck driver with the National Guard who’s badly wounded in a roadside bombing just before she’s due to be sent home to Spokane. The film opens with the ambush sequence, in which her unit — on a humanitarian mission, and theoretically not facing combat — is attacked, and right away, we understand the dramatic differences between the Iraq situation and other times and places where American soldiers have been deployed. Support personnel are in more danger than ever before; women face the same risks to life and limb as men; attack can come from anywhere: maybe from a child standing on a streetcorner. Director Irwin Winkler (De-Lovely, Life as a House), working from a first screenplay by Mark Friedman, doesn’t go for the fancy or the artsy, just offers a straightforward, almost journalistic depiction of the brief, pitched battle — it’s raw and terrifying but also real and direct, uncolored by cinematic embellishment, as if Winkler is more worried about the audience getting the full, abrupt impact of the moment than with trying to find a clever new way to make combat look exciting on film.
And yet, the seeming hopelessness of the mission of these National Guardsmen and the apparent impossibility of their making a genuine difference goes mostly unspoken in Home of the Brave — this isn’t a political film, except in the sense that it advocates for not throwing away the lives of American soldiers without good reason. Whatever your political leanings, and whether you support the American invasion of Iraq or not, the film doesn’t care: it’s concerned only with shedding light on how the people implementing the war are affected. The bulk of the story is taken up with the days and weeks after Vanessa’s Guard unit returns home: there’s also soldier Tommy Yates (Brian Presley), whose best friend was killed in the ambush; Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson: Snakes on a Plane, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith), a medic in the Guard and a doctor at home; and Jamal Aiken (Curts “50 Cent” Jackson: Get Rich or Die Tryin’), who is haunted by one particular moment in the heat of action. From working-class grunts to rich professionals, they all find it almost impossible to readjust to civilian life… an effort that is not helped by the fact that hardly anyone seems to appreciate what they went through in Iraq, or even wants to try to understand.
Look, this is no classic. It’s a little obvious, and a lot ham-handed in places. But its opening a window onto a scene that we shouldn’t be ignoring is vital. What it wants to do, storywise, and succeeds in doing more than compensates for the forgivable gaffes it stumbles into along the way.