“Wars begin where you will but they do not end where you please” — that piece of political wisdom from Machiavelli serves as the motto for the newly released film Home of the Brave, the first film about soldiers returning from the Iraq war. Whatever light that and other Machiavellian aphorisms might shed on our conduct of the Iraq war, the film illumines very little. Alternately politically incoherent and insouciantly apolitical, the film follows the lives of four soldiers as they return to civilian life in Spokane, Washington. Aiming for nuance and depth of human feeling, Home of the Brave, directed by Irwin Winkler, delivers nothing more than one-dimensional characters and endlessly dreary plots. (It was not a good sign that the film was previewed for critics months ago but is only being released now.)
Perhaps the best-filmed scene is the opening in Iraq, where a group of U.S. soldiers, awaiting the trip home, is sent on a final humanitarian mission, during which they are ambushed. From the encounter with innocent local children to the mounting sense of entrapment in the narrow streets of the town of Al Hayy, the battle scene is gripping, even if it calls to mind, and pales by comparison to, scenes in Black Hawk Down. Numerous soldiers are killed or seriously injured. Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel) endures the loss of part of her arm and ends up having to wear an awkward prosthetic hand; Tommy (Brian Presley) suffers the torment of the death of his best friend; Jamal Atkins (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) is haunted by having killed an innocent Iraqi; and Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) is a doctor who harbors memories of horrors which he suppresses throughout most of the film.
Beyond the physical and psychological burdens, each soldier returns to a homeland that now feels utterly alien. The sense of dislocation exacerbates the trauma. But the degradation and despair are drawn in such bold strokes that the film overwhelms, when it should deepen, our imaginative sympathy. The least persuasive of all the mini-plots is Jackson’s Marsh, who takes to drinking and violent outbursts. A Thanksgiving dinner scene is particularly appalling, as Marsh launches into a lengthy diatribe and then assaults his son, who opposes the war, and tears out his tongue ring.
The film’s writer, Mark Friedman, sees the film as encompassing “the most even-handed and widest possible spectrum of what diverse soldiers experienced in the war and the journey home.” Diversity, apparently, excludes the possibility of any soldiers who come home marginally well adjusted or who overcome difficulties through the aid of a loving family. The very production notes for the film cite a Time magazine study indicating that 1 in 4 Iraq war veterans have suffered mental or physical disability. By that standard, the film’s focus is disproportionate. The real problem here is not the absence of hopeful stories, but film’s failure to introduce measure and complexity into its dark tales of postwar life. Hyperbolic misery cancels the film’s emotional appeal.
Some critics have faulted the film with failing to take a clear stand. When asked whether he has made an antiwar film, Irwin hedges a bit, but only a bit: “I think any film that shows the results of a war, where people get killed and maimed, and their lives are ruined, I guess that’s an antiwar film. It can’t be pro-war. How could it be anything but antiwar?” The film does try, perhaps too hard, to present both sides; the result is often inadvertently comic. In one scene, Samuel Jackson’s character, who often resembles a despondent version of his character from Snakes on a Plane, defends both the troops and a liberal critique of the war. Having devoted itself to showing, first, the futility of American attempts to help Iraqis, and, second, the destructive impact of war on our soldiers, the film ends on a note of noble sacrifice, for which there is little or no evidence in the film itself. The tone is not ironic, yet it’s hard to say just what the tone or intent is.
An epic film of great dramatic complexity about the Iraq war might well take its cue from the Machiavellian observation cited above. Given that liberal critics of the war so often trace its origin to a neocon, Straussian plot, the administration’s failure to heed this and other Machiavellian precepts could be the basis for a potentially devastating critique. But that would require moving beyond an exclusive focus on the troops, as worthy as that attention is, and addressing the questions of the larger ends of the war and the means of its conduct.
That sort of intellectual subtlety exceeds the comprehension of Hollywood, at least in its treatment of contemporary events, where shallow sound bites and empty platitudes remain the order of the day.