Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Details of Denial
We watched The Messenger last night. It's a wonderfully acted movie and depicts a necessary aspect of war which our government, since the start of this bloody decade, has striven mightily to keep from our tender sensibilities. For a long time, during the Bush years, it was actually close to illegal to photograph a flag-draped coffin. Photographers on the government payroll who did make such photographs were summarily fired on occasion. President Obama has removed at least that stigma, but on the other hand, I'm not seeing much in the way of such details on any of the news programs I happen to watch. As the Woody Harrelson character remarks, "They ought to put every funeral on TV." Indeed. And it was interesting that the U.S. Army cooperated fully with the making of the movie, and approved of it. Mostly the military lives in the real world by necessity. They may have to put blinders on when it comes to some decisions (one wonders if our military planners actually believe that attacking Iran is a sensible course of action, and if not, one hopes the planners will have the courage to demur), but there's no denial about the basic facts of war. Men and women die, often horribly, and their friends grieve, often without relief. When Sgt. Montgomery takes up the mission of informing the next of kin (NOKs) that their loved one has been killed, he says, "I never had any grief counselling, much less learned to give grief counseling." The funny ad now running concerning the drill sargeant shrink and the weeping patient has in it some serious truth.
Here's the New York Times review of the Messenger.
Other reviews complained that the movie was too "slow." Finding such complaints didn't surprise me. I had watched, by accident, John Mills' great World War II movie set in the midst of the air war against Germany, The Way to the Stars, the day before. The two films are quite similar. They center on the quality of character in a context where, more and more, heroes with character are passe--probably because development of character creates eddies in the pacing and thus risks lost of attention among the twenty-something viewers which most films are crafted to entertain. In the Mills example, an American bomber pilot chooses not to have an affair with a widowed Englishwoman who runs a pub/hotel near the base, but instead has a quite believable friendship with her based on their shared loneliness (she grieves for her husband, he misses his wife and children--how many movies would, instead, have the American cheat in such circumstances, or even deride the choice these particular characters make). Mills also believably eschews a developing romance with a pretty, overprotected English girl living at the hotel because of the grief in which his friend's death has left the widow in question. The Way to the Stars is quite similar to it's more famous cousin, Twelve O'Clock High. Unlike Twelve O'Clock, Stars has no gun camera footage at all, although both films present the tense moment when returning bombers are counted and the missing ones noted. It was this aspect of the Allied Air War which seems to have been the most memorable to the recent participants--not the action, but the ache of living with the knowledge that friends would not return. George McGovern, who flew one of those bombers (and never mentioned it in his campaign for President in 1972), talks of leaving an empty bunk as it was before a friend and roommate failed to return--for the war's duration no less.
Very similarly, Sgt. Montgomery, in The Messenger, ends up in a grief-driven friendship with the widow he notifies of her husband's death. The two consider a physical relationship, care deeply for each other--yet are both aware that such a choice isn't right for the conditions they are in. Indeed, both films produce what one might term "realistic" happy endings, with the Mills romance finally getting started as the war is ending, and with the widow giving Sgt. Montgomery her new address and consenting to allow him to visit her sometime in the future. Possibilities are at least pointed to, if not immediately realized.
In the dry terminology of developmental psychology, both these stories are about deferred goals. Deferring goals is something adults are supposed to learn to do as they develop out of the childhood context. The child screams for whatever it immediately wants. The adult waits and works towards the desired. The Bush wars suggested that the public practice a different sort of denial, unfortunately. We were to ignore the wars entirely, and to continue shopping. Meanwhile, our wars were and are being conducted by "professionals," many of them private mercenaries no less. War has become another specialization. A significant feature of our wars is now the pilotless drone, operated by computer by technicians in control rooms thousands of miles from the events. And in our movies, what sells is decisive, riveting action--the explosion seconds behind the hero's passage, the sniper's bullet surprising the conversation, the tumult and incoherence of battle--be it D-Day or the courtyard in Somalia. A story about a recovering veteran who has the character to keep his soul's scream silent--too slow. But--again--the U.S. Army saw The Messenger as a movie to cooperate with, to aid in its production. Or does a movie like The Messenger speak to all those who can no longer deny. As Harrelson says to Ben Foster (Sgt. Montgomery), "you're not fit to sell insurance any more." It's hard to argue that even the raw recruit wouldn't benefit from the wisdom this film depicts. Oh yes, possibly some kids might choose not to enlist after seeing such a movie. But it's actually much more likely that the kids are going to not go at all--not with the next shoot-em-up always available at the same ticket window. And the Army knows this too, no doubt.
Samantha Morton (photo as Olivia, in The Messenger) is the third key character in the film. Like the Foster and Harrelson characters, she is grown up, and as we discover, she was grown up before getting the dread news that Foster and Harrelson are enlisted to bring as their "mission." Harrelson is cynical: he's spotted a man's shirt on the clothes line at Olivia's house as they are leaving, and theorizes that she's being unfaithful--a caution to Foster not to become emotionally involved with Olivia. It turns out to have been her husband's shirt--she'd coincidentally found it and washed it on the day the news came, but tells Foster in a later scene that he was long gone before he died--that the Army had already stolen him. Olivia resists the temptation of an affair with Foster, however. Why? Because it's apparent that neither she nor Foster are ready for deep emotional involvement, no matter how sad and grieving they are, respectively.
This is the opposite of Mr. Bush's "Shop!" admonition, and the opposite, as well, of all the Rambos and rescue adventures that populate the movie houses of 2010. And it's the opposite of "Bringing Democracy to Iraq" as well. This movie is worth seeing because it lets us see our real life, from a slightly removed perspective--so that we can see it better. Sunday, after the Mills movie on Turner Classics, they ran another, later Mills film, also starring George Peppard and Sophia Loren. It was about a group of commandos aiming to find some hidden German facility producing missiles (I think it was). It would be interesting to see this plot in the context of a search to find the drone command center. If such a movie were made in Hollywood, the protagonists could always be killed off before any American soldier is harmed. Certainly there would be no need to shake American Exceptionalism to its very core foundations. Such movies have been successfully made in times past. I think of the Young Lions for example. The idea would be to exploit the tension between the obviously heroic efforts to thwart a kind of high tech sniping which is intrinsically amoral, and the fact that the heroes are clearly on the "wrong side." Stories of the American Confederacy work this way. The best example of all might be Das Boot. Such flims would not suffer from "slowness"; instant gratification would be served.
The exqusite denial portrayed in the love scene between Foster and Morton is nonetheless a cinematic moment of great and enduring elegance, because it depicts true adult life. (It is also the pivot of the movie--the moment after which things change.) The question is, can such a scene be appreciated by a film audience which is not, itself, adult--which craves instant gratification--or will such an audience return to the movie in ten or twenty years and only then, "get it." When I was a kid I loved Flying Leathernecks, and found The Bridges at Toko-Ri to be boring. My father once said, of movies like Flying Leathernecks, "you have to read between the lines." At the time I had no idea at all what he meant.