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Denofcinema.com: Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Saturday Night At The Movies

The worst years of our lives

By Dennis Hartley

The bad news bearers: Harrelson and Foster in The Messenger

Well, it took long enough. Someone has finally made a film that gets the harrowing national nightmare of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars right. Infused with sharp writing, smart and unobtrusive direction and compelling performances, The Messenger is one of those insightful observations of the human condition that quietly sneaks up and really gets inside you, staying with you long after the credits roll. This is easily one of the best films I have seen this year (and one of the few with real substance). First-time director Owen Moverman and co-writer Alessandro Camon not only bring the war(s) home, but they then proceed to march up your driveway and deposit in on your doorstep. Quite literally.

Knock, knock.

"The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your (son, daughter, husband, wife) (died/was killed in action) in (country/state) on (date). The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss."

Those are words that no one ever wants to hear, and I can’t imagine any job in the world that could possibly be any worse than being the person assigned to deliver that message. “There’s no such thing as a satisfied customer,” deadpans Casualty Notification Officer Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) to his new apprentice, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), who is emotionally shattered by his virgin encounter with bereaved “NOK”.

Sgt. Montgomery is a decorated, recently returned Iraq War vet whose enlistment is almost up. Although he accepts this one last thankless assignment with the stoic obedience expected from a professional soldier, he appears to privately suffer from PTSD; a condition that makes an odd bedfellow with his new responsibilities. Stone is a hardass, a cynical careerist who carries a fair share of personal baggage himself. When he bluntly asks Montgomery if he is “a head case” right after meeting him, you suspect that this may be a case of “it takes one to know one”. Stone (and Harrelson’s portrayal) is reminiscent of SM1 “Bad Ass” Buddusky, Jack Nicholson’s character in The Last Detail.

In fact, there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner. A subplot involving a relationship between Montgomery and a recently widowed Army wife (Samantha Morton) strongly recalled one of my all-time favorite sleepers from that particular era and style of filmmaking, Mark Rydell’s Cinderella Liberty (worth seeking out, if you have never seen it, BTW).

Although the filmmakers hold back from making any overt political statements, the notification scenes in the film say it all-we continue to ship scores of young American men and women overseas whole of limb and spirit, and return many of them home sans either or both (or in a box)…and for what justifiable reason, exactly? And as heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and hard to watch as these scenes are-I am sure they pale in comparison to the agony of those families and loved ones who have answered the door and received that news for real. In fact, I’ll take this one step further. I challenge anyone out there who feels we “need” to dig ourselves in deeper into our present Middle East quagmire to watch this film, reassess their justifications, and get back to me. Go. I’ll wait.

All power to the people

And speaking of lost causes… there’s a fascinating new documentary making the rounds that you might want to keep an eye out for. William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is a sometimes stirring, sometimes confounding but ultimately moving portrait of the iconoclastic and controversial defense lawyer who was sort of the Zelig of the radical Left throughout most of the 1970s. Somehow, he became THE key legal champion for the Chicago 7, The Black Panther Party, anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan, the American Indian Movement and the ill-fated inmates who initiated the Attica prison riots.

However, beginning sometime in the 1980s (for reasons known only to himself, or perhaps just merely in keeping with the inherently contrarian nature of a defense lawyer) he slowly but surely turned to The Dark Side (at least in the opinion, and to the chagrin, of many of his professional cohorts and former “co-conspirators”). He started to take on high-profile cases involving clients who were, well, decidedly less sexy to the dedicated followers of fashionable radical chic; terrorists (including the chief planner of the first World Trade Center attack and the man accused of murdering Rabbi Kahane), mobsters (John Gotti and other Gambino family associates), notorious murderers (L.I. Railroad killer Colin Ferguson) and rapists (the Central Park jogger assault case)-to name a couple.

The filmmakers may have more personal reasons than anyone else to be stymied by this apparent mass of contradictions that constituted Kunstler’s persona, and are arguably the best qualified to take a stab at earnest analysis-because after all, he was their Dad. Luckily for us, Emily and Sarah Kunstler were precociously budding filmmakers from an early age; they were able to capture a lot of wonderfully un-self conscious vintage home movie moments from a man who was almost always otherwise playing to the news cameras with the Right Profile and the Grand Gesture. These moments temper the usual talking heads reminiscences and archival news footage in a unique fashion, adding an unusually intimate element to the film. To their credit, they don’t sugarcoat that they were truly horrified by some of their father’s professional choices (not to mention the fact that some of those choices precipitated some all-too-real death threats against the family).

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Kunstler’s eventual decision to seemingly pull any defendant’s name out of the Fuckit Bucket and give it his all, regardless of the political correctness involved, the real takeaway you get from the film is the same one his daughters touchingly acknowledge in the denouement-there’s never anything wrong with making a stand against social injustice, even if you’re the only one who perceives it may be taking place. This point is brought home beautifully when Emily and Sarah remind us that the young African Americans who were originally brought to trial in the 1989 Central Park jogger case, roundly vilified in the media and vigorously defended by their father were exonerated in 2002, when DNA linked a murderer to the rape. And so it goes.

Previous posts with related themes:


Lions for Lambs

Chicago 10