Soldiers Return From Iraq With Best Years Behind Them

Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave, from a screenplay by Mark Friedman, based on an original story by Mr. Friedman

Irwin Winkler’s Home of the Brave, from a screenplay by Mark Friedman, based on an original story by Mr. Friedman and Mr. Winkler, enjoys some kind of pioneering distinction as the first major feature film to deal with the problems of veterans returning from the chaotic hostilities in Iraq. It is estimated that more than 150,000 such homecomings have transpired—all with relatively little media attention.

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Patterned after William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)—which concerned itself with three returning veterans of World War II—Home of the Brave reflects the changes in 60 years that have occurred in the U.S. Armed Forces by replacing the three white males of Best Years with two African-Americans, one woman and only one white male. This tends to mark, though in extreme fashion, the demographic difference between today’s all-volunteer armed forces and the draft-swollen but rigorously segregated military that fought and won World War II, against two formidable enemy war machines, to make the world safe for democracy.

Otherwise, the problems of readjustment to civilian life are much the same as they were 60 years ago, with the exception that a much higher percentage of veterans are now diagnosed with post-traumatic mental disorders. Still, people tend to forget that 60 years ago, tabloid crime stories would designate the culprits, more often than not, as “veterans”—as if the violence of the war had caused the crime. Finding good jobs was as hard then as it is now, but the cost of living was a lot cheaper. As for marital and other romantic problems, the “Dear John” letter is ageless.

Mr. Winkler and Mr. Friedman do not make their returning veterans mouthpieces for anti-Bush propaganda—which is all to the good. Nor do they trot out all the old anti–Vietnam War rhetoric to apply to the current imbroglio. For one thing, there was no 9/11 before we became enmeshed in the jungles of Vietnam. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution is a poor substitute; 9/11 was actually closer to Pearl Harbor as a clarion call to battle. This doesn’t make the Iraq War any less of a mess than it apparently is, but it does complicate the feelings of the men in uniform and their families back home. Home of the Brave honors this emotional complexity by not having its characters make political speeches on the subject.

Yet the film begins with a brutal battle scene attesting to the overall futility of the conflict. A war-weary National Guard unit—based originally in Spokane, Wash.—has just heard the long-sought news that they are to be sent home and discharged from duty. But when they head out on one final mission of mercy in the nearby town of Al Hayy, they are ambushed by insurgents and take heavy casualties, with none of the four central characters escaping unscathed, physically or mentally. The well-rendered, gruesome footage was shot on location in Morocco.

Medic Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) performs heroic life-saving feats of surgical improvisation in the midst of battle, but the action takes its lasting toll on him in mental anguish. Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel), the cargo specialist on the mission, is so badly wounded during the battle that, though Marsh manages to save her life, he is unable to save her hand; and this single mother finds that her life back home is permanently altered. Jordan Owens (Chad Michael Murray) and Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) have been close buddies since their younger days in Spokane. When Jordan is killed during their last “routine” mission in Iraq, Tommy is completely devastated to a point that will have future consequences. Jamal Aiken (Curtis Jackson) is another of the close-knit group; he is caught in an unending guilt trip over the Iraqi woman he killed under ambiguous reflex circumstances.

The rest of the film follows these four “survivors” of the bloodbath to their separate destinies in their hometown of Spokane: Each finds the path to a normal existence strewn with mental land mines. Marsh returns to his wife, Penelope (Victoria Rowell), and his rebellious son Billy (Sam Jones III, the son of the legendary Boston Celtics basketball superstar who was as underrated as much as Bill Russell was overrated). Ironically, Billy has become an angry anti-war activist, although it isn’t clear whether he’s rebelling more against his father, who just happened to be in the war, or against the war itself. Marsh’s wife just wants him to get counseling for his wild mood swings, both at home and at work.

Vanessa, meanwhile, finds it difficult to adjust to the loss of her hand and seeks out Marsh for counseling, which actually helps him focus on his own unresolved feelings. Vanessa ends one relationship, and starts another, before she begins coming to grips with the unchanging nature of her handicap and the burden it will place on her. We have come a long way with prosthetic devices in the 60 years since Harold Russell won two Oscars for appearing in Best Years with two real-life iron hooks. But nothing can erase the traumatic feeling of loss in any amputation.

Meanwhile, Tommy tries to pick up the pieces of his life in Spokane by visiting his dead buddy Jordan’s mother and Jordan’s fiancé (Christina Ricci). But after finding that the only job he can wangle is as a movie usher, he decides to re-enlist, because Iraq was—ironically—the only place in which he felt he was making a personal contribution for a common purpose. Meanwhile, Jamal fails disastrously to make a successful adjustment to the “home front.”

All in all, Home of the Brave manages to alert audiences to the unfinished business of this perhaps truly endless war on terror—much like the similarly endless war on drugs that has preceded it. Mr. Winkler and Mr. Friedman deserve credit for achieving their objectives without undue bombast or bravado, but rather with a clear-eyed view of an uneasy time in our national life. At the very least, we owe it to our troops in the field to see this film and to start thinking seriously about their plight when they return to us—the easily distracted and notoriously forgetful civilians that we are.

Diamond in the Rough

Edward Zwick’s Blood Diamond, from a screenplay by Charles Leavitt, based on a story by Mr. Leavitt and C. Gaby Mitchell, turns out to be a small, short film with a huge heart and a profound social conscience. It is clearly one of the biggest surprises of this overcrowded holiday season, and certainly one of the most emotionally rousing entertainments of the year (which is certainly not what one would be led to expect from what seemed in advance to be just another Leonardo DiCaprio action vehicle). Instead, I was reminded by the final fade-out of the recent nonfiction film King Leopold’s Ghost, detailing Belgian King Leopold’s shameless exploitation of the Congolese people and their natural resources with a capitalist-imperialist form of operation that reportedly continues today in this supposedly postcolonial period.

Blood Diamond doesn’t go into such extensive detail about its own chosen terrain in the African nation of Sierra Leone, which was wracked by a barbaric civil war that raged from 1991 until 2002, with both sides battling for control of the nation’s lucrative diamond-mining industry. Unfortunately, the profits from this enterprise didn’t flow back to the people of Sierra Leone, but to Western interests abroad. The diamonds exported by both sides in the civil war came to be labeled “conflict diamonds” by pro-African activists and their Western liberal sympathizers.

Marc Santora documented this comparatively recent political phenomenon in an informative article in the Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section of Dec. 3, 2006, with the slightly derisive title of “Hollywood’s Multifaceted Cause du Jour.” The article itself drags in Marilyn Monroe’s frenzied rendition of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the movie version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) as one of the De Beer’s diamond cartel’s finest moments in a campaign waged by the industry since 1938, after a memo urged movie plots to use diamonds as a romantic clincher.

As Mr. Santora recalls the world’s inattention to the horrors of the civil war in Sierra Leone until the fall of its capital, Freetown, in 1999, he notes that about that time, a script circulated in Hollywood that Mr. Zwick, the director of Blood Diamond, said involved the hunt for a diamond that was “in the vein of an Indiana Jones movie.” When Mr. Zwick researched the subject more thoroughly, he was reportedly so horrified by what he learned that he brought in Alex Yearsley—whose work with the nonprofit human-rights organization Global Witness helped focus media attention on Sierra Leone—as a technical consultant for the upcoming film. As The Times piece noted: “But Mr. Zwick said it was only when Mr. DiCaprio agreed to star that they got the green light for a big-budget movie.” Talk about a star-driven industry! Only this satirical tale has a happy ending.

For starters, Mr. DiCaprio’s lead character is closer to Joseph Conrad’s Marlow from Heart of Darkness than to Indiana Jones. This makes him far from sympathetic as he ruthlessly pursues the “blood diamond” that will be his ticket out of Africa—where he was born, and where he watched his family slaughtered when he was a child. He is also a hardened veteran of one of the many armies that have ravaged Africa for centuries.

He softens a bit when he encounters Jennifer Connelly’s wryly vivacious Fortune magazine photojournalist during his final quest for the stone that will change his life. He is deeply moved by her concern for his corrosive self-hatred, but he steadfastly refuses her request to accompany him on the last perilous stretch of the journey. The only companion he allows to accompany him is a tribal elder, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou), who has survived the destruction of his village, but who is on his own quest to find his runaway son and the rest of his family, who have been separated from him by the civil war.

The tensions between the two men over their conflicting obsessions occasionally erupt into physical violence, and one’s sympathy is invariably with the less materialistic Vandy, who searches for his son even at the risk of his own life. Even so, there is so much running for one’s life and killing of human obstacles before the white-whale-like stone can be located and secured that it hardly seems worth all the spilling of blood. There is a completely surprising and unembarrassingly noble ending to all the violent action—which I shall not reveal. Suffice to say that I was genuinely moved by the experience.

Prolonging the Kennedy Curse

Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, from his own screenplay, is clearly a labor of love for its writer-director and its all-for-the-cause cast; it is also a laboriously leaden anti-Bush allegory. Its flimsy multi-character narrative calls attention to its origins in Edmund Goulding and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel by quoting Lewis Stone from the Oscar-winning 1932 film, which starred Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery.

As in Stephen Frear’s The Queen, a larger-than-life dead cel­ebrity is exclusively shown in pub­lic-appearance newsreels; but unlike The Queen, the characters in Bobby are pallid presences, on the whole. Yet there is some of the same rock-star-like audience hysteria for the Robert F. Kennedy footage in Bobby as there was surrounding the newsreel appearances of Princess Diana in The Queen—except that Princess Di was already dead when The Queen begins, whereas Bobby Kennedy is an unseen but not unfelt living presence at the beginning of Bobby at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, on the fateful day and night of June 4, 1968.

For all his good intentions, Mr. Estevez has reduced history to a bad melodrama in which nothing much happens until a crazed assassin (of whom we catch only a fleeting prior glimpse) supposedly destroys the last great hope of a liberal renaissance in America. After all, Bobby Kennedy might well have gone on to win the Democratic nomination in Chicago, and perhaps he might have defeated Richard Nixon and his “silent majority” in the general election, and perhaps he might have governed more effectively than his late, lamented brother Jack, and perhaps he might have gotten us out of the Vietnam mess that his brother Jack had only made worse when he signed off on the coup d’état that killed Diem. Perhaps to all these suppositions—and perhaps not.

As I listened to the real-life Bobby of almost 40 years ago, promising to end poverty and injustice in America—and warning New York City’s school children that they would grow up having to wear gas masks if we didn’t change our environmental policies—I asked myself how and why we had let these things come to pass under two Democratic Presidents and a Democratic Congress. But we couldn’t blame everything on Vietnam then, any more than we can blame everything on Iraq today.

As it happens, back in 1968, I appeared for the first and last time on a New York movie-house stage to make a political speech for Eugene Mccarthy—before R.F.K. demagogically elbowed his way into the race after McCarthy had demonstrated the strength of the anti-war vote by pulling a near-upset over President Lyndon B. Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Actually, the California primary result turned out to be much closer in the end than the movie indicates, and McCarthy did win the Oregon primary (as the movie does indicate).

This is to say that the country was almost as evenly divided politically in 1968 as it had been back in 1960, when I had to stay up all night as Nixon kept narrowing Kennedy’s early lead by gobbling up all the Midwestern and Western states that Truman had unexpectedly carried over Dewey in 1948. And I cried with everyone else when J.F.K. was assassinated in 1963. But Bobby’s assassination in 1968 just left me numb. Yet I still wonder if these two traumatic events changed history all that much. There were much larger forces at work then, just as there are today, and simple-minded movie hagiographies like Bobby do little to illu­minate those forces.

I was particularly offended in the film by the humorous treatment accorded to two campaign workers named Cooper and Jimmy (Brian Geraghty and Shia LaBeouf), who abandon their canvassing tasks when they are induced by the resident LSD guru (Ashton Kutcher) to drop acid instead of smoking a couple of joints. Their “cool” period shenanigans reminded me of everything that turned me off from the protest movements of the 60’s. I was more puzzled than offended by a nice girl named Diane (Lindsay Lohan), who marries a young man named William Avary (Elijah Wood), whom she barely knows, to keep him from going to Vietnam; I was more amused than offended by an over-the-hill lounge singer named Virginia Fallon (Demi Moore), who seemed meant to be the equivalent of Garbo’s fading ballerina in Grand Hotel, with just a touch of Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950). Mr. Estevez himself takes on the demeaning dog-walking role of the diva’s em­­as­­culated husband. Meanwhile, the hotel manager (William H. Macy) cheats on his hairdresser wife (Sharon Stone) with one of the switchboard operators (Heather Graham), while two Mexican-American kitchen workers (Freddy Rodriguez and Jacob Vargas) argue about civil rights with the all-knowing African-American cook (Laurence Fishburne). Another African-American (Nick Cannon) serving on Kennedy’s staff is overwhelmed after being granted an aud­ience with the Senator. Timmons (Christian Slater) is the kitchen sup­ervisor fired by the hotel manager for his racist remarks. Timmons gets a measure of revenge by snitching to the manager’s wife about her husband’s infidelity. An uneasily married middle-aged couple (Martin Sheen and Helen Hunt) and two slightly drunk geezers (Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte) represent the older generations. Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches enough shutout innings to set a record and provide the film with a historical coordinate. As Bobby Clark once remarked, “Never was a thin plot so complicated.”

Soldiers Return From Iraq  With Best Years Behind Them