The movies find drama in the struggles of returning veterans

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Devoid of overtly stated political views, Jason Hall’s Thank You for Your Service focuses its lens on three psychologically devastated Iraq vets, dramatizing an unremittingly dark slice of life made even worse by the lack of services, the bureaucracy and all-around incompetence vets face on a daily basis. And that’s on top of every other crisis in their lives.

One soldier (Joe Cole), discovering that his fiancée has abandoned him, commits suicide. Another (Miles Taylor) is tortured by the memory of troops torn apart by an IED. And still another (Beulah Koale) whose brain is totally scrambled makes a few bucks working for the most sinister of gun dealers, who entertain themselves with graphically depicted dog fights. The film, based on David Finkel’s stunning book, is visually and aurally compelling. Routine construction work or even traffic noises evoke detonating bombs.

The returning vet as hero (or anti-hero) is a film staple and this Veterans Day is notable for a trio of films on the Iraq vet. Besides Thank You for Your Service, there’s Last Flag Flying, and just a few weeks ago, Blood Stripe. (The PBS documentary Almost Sunrise, investigating the moral crisis experienced by Iraq vets, will be telecast on Nov. 13.)

They’ve all come a long way from William Wyler’s multi-Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a glossy melodrama featuring three vets who cannot reconcile their new selves to their old worlds that have gone on without them. Still, the film concludes on an upbeat note reaffirming the war effort, the traditional family and American values.

In a bleaker vein, especially in its treatment of corporate America, Nunnally Johnson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) also examines the life of a distraught vet (Gregory Peck), who suffers from recurring war flashbacks and the memory of his affair with a woman in war-torn Italy. Yet, the war’s morality is never questioned and in the end there’s no place like home nor the compassionate American wife (Jennifer Jones) who in this story rises to the most challenging demands, including adopting Tom’s illegitimate child.

Even Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero—which sends up the narrow-mindedness of a small-town America that showers excessive reverence on war heroes—offers no commentary about the war effort. As for Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken), he never claims to be a great soldier; it’s the townsfolk who’ve cast him in that role. Yes, he unwittingly created the myth by telling his mother that he was serving overseas rather than the truth—e.g., that he was discharged because of hay fever (not manly in 1944). But he comes clean and thus proves himself to be a real hero, and more to the point he lied to protect his mother’s feelings; also, he was afraid of her (a Freudian mother-son relationship if ever there was one). The genre has indeed evolved, revealing as much about the cultural values and prevailing aesthetics of the day as it does about attitudes towards the military.

Honoring soldiers (at least most of them) was axiomatic even in films depicting the horrors of war: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, most recently Dunkirk, and even the dishonest Hacksaw Ridge, which while extolling the virtues of pacifism celebrates the triumphant army.

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The presence of women soldiers marks a radical shift. They don’t exist in any of the World War II, Vietnam or Korean (let alone World War I) flicks, but have now morphed into protagonists in such films as Courage Under Fire, G.I. Jane, and most notably Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. And then they come home, stoic, composed and devoid of cathartic moments. The distaff vet has become a new character onscreen.

Blood Stripe, which did not receive nearly as much attention as it should have, tells the story of aMarine sergeant (co-writer Kate Nowlin) who, having completed three tours of duty in Iraq, cannot function as a civilian. She’s constantly running as if in training and still speaks in military language. “I’m catching transport at 0800,” she says. The title works on several levels but specifically alludes to the scarlet strip running down the pants leg of the uniforms worn by Marine Corps officers.

Impressively directed by first-timer Remy Auberjonois, the film is apolitical, short of our heroine noting that it will take her 129 days to get an appointment with a VA physician.Nothing is offered in the way of backstory and, coupled with its flat observational tone, Blood Stripe elicits the numbness that comes with living through the horrors of war and its aftermath.

The Sergeant bears visible scars on her back, but she never says what happened to her. Tiny trickles of blood drip onto the sink and shower stall when she uses them, but it’s not clear where the blood is coming from, the nature of the injury, or what caused it.

In her downtrodden blue-collar Minnesota neighborhood, our Sergeant, who is unnamed, insists she is just fine, despite suffering from insomnia, obsessively mowing the lawn at night and vomiting following her first sexual encounter with her well-meaning husband, Rusty (Chris Sullivan), who stayed at home while she served. At her homecoming party, she assaults an old friend when he hugs her a little too intensely. Perhaps she was sexually molested while serving, though she never points to herself as a victim. That would violate her training, her credo.

On an impulse, she drives to an old lake campsite, the place of happy childhood memories, where its caretaker (Rusty Schwimmer) asks the Sergeant if she’d like a job helping out. The Sergeant is happy to immerse herself in labor-intensive, time-killing projects that become acts of self-oblivion. Her encounters with almost everyone feel slightly menacing. Is she being threatened or is her paranoia kicking in? It’s a film that straddles the line between the all too real and surreal.

The 2011 movie Return, marking writer-director Liza Johnson’s feature debut, and centering on the disenfranchised experience of a returning female vet in the Rust Belt, covers similar territory and likewise fell off the radar too quickly. Kelli (Linda Cardellini) has completed a tour of duty and looks forward to the quotidian as wife of a plumber, Mike (Michael Shannon), and mother of her two small daughters. But Kelli’s marriage is shaky, she is unable to care for her children, and she unceremoniously quits a desperately needed job—the latter a common narrative motif in films about returning vets. Either the jobs no longer exist for them or they are incapable of working in a noncombatant setting.

Return is vivid in its depiction of a moribund factory community that is not unlike the home base of many soldiers for whom deployment is a far better option than staying home without employment and among people who have become marginalized and displaced. Consider last spring’s 11:55, set in a downtrodden, drug-infested upstate community, where a returning Iraq vet finds his home base as wretchedly dangerous and fractured as the war-torn region where he served.

Return’s world is no welcoming haven either, not to Kelli and especially Bud, an aging, drugged-out Vietnam vet (John Slattery in a fine performance) who has long since given up on himself. Decades down the road, living in hell, he’s still among the forgotten.

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Although Vietnam was the turning point, viewing the military through a jaundiced lens was already evident years earlier in The Americanization of Emily, Catch 22, and especially the brilliant Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. On TV we had “The Phil Silvers Show” and “Hogan’s Heroes.” We had not yet gotten to “M*A*S*H.”

The Vietnam War and the massive anti-war movement that came in its wake—coupled with the civil-rights and counterculture movements—threw the door wide open for M*A*S*H, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, and such films as The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon and the mythic Apocalypse Now, inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,all dramatizing contempt for the war, the American leaders behind it and by extension many of those who fought in it.

On Main Street USA, Vietnam vets were literally spat upon. The Vietnam War still casts a long shadow. Ken Burns’ recent 10-part, 18-hour PBS documentary series “TheVietnam War” proves the point as it analyzes that defining chapter in American history from every possible angle, trying to set the record straight.

The benchmark films were Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978) and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989). For the first time, the vet, physically wounded and psychologically damaged by the war, had been reinvented as an anti-war, anti-authoritarian activist.

Hal Ashby’s multi-Oscar winning Coming Home was the groundbreaker in portraying a controversial war’s impact on its returning soldiers, but also on those who remained at home in a world undergoing seismic changes. Sally (Jane Fonda), the devoted, politically conservative wife of Marine Bob Hyde (Bruce Dern), has fallen in love with paralyzed vet turned anti-war activist Luke Ryan (Jon Voight), with whom she went to high school. Their shared history is a subtle touch pointing to an innocent, unsullied period in their lives when they believed in the future.

Sally encounters Luke at a local VA hospital where she has volunteered. Her husband is serving in Vietnam and she has little to do, with no career or even job to occupy her. The film hints at Sally’s restricted life at the cusp of the women’s movement that has not yet entered her world.

Enraged at the negligent treatment he is receiving at the hospital, Luke, strapped to a gurney face down, is furiously wheeling himself down the hall when he crashes into Sally, his urine bag splashing its contents onto Sally’s prim outfit and manicured hands. It’s a vividly humiliating moment for both of them.

As their friendship evolves into an affair and Sally experiences her first orgasm (much ink has been shed on that one), she loses her shirtwaist dresses and coiffed dos in favor of flowing skirts and unkempt hair. Still, she loves her husband, a tortured soul in his own right, especially when he returns from Vietnam, conflicted over his sense of duty that’s at odds with his experiences in combat that make no sense.

At one point he’s killing Vietcong randomly, impaling their heads on sticks; at other points he’s hamstrung by the powers-that-be, not allowed to shoot the enemy or even protect himself. Finally, back on the home front, injured, he’s honored with a medal for bravery when in fact he accidentally shot himself in the leg. His wife has taken up with another man, a fellow veteran to boot, while he was serving in Vietnam without purpose.

Far less successful is Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July, an ambitious but heavy-going film that presents a tapestry of a disintegrating American society informed by its wrongheaded politics, religious beliefs, traditional family values, and notions of patriotism and machismo. Based on Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic’s memoir and starring Tom Cruise, it recounts Kovic’s evolution from gung-ho war supporter to anti-war activist.

Returning from Vietnam, paralyzed, confined to a wheelchair and sexually impotent, he is flanked by a community, including former friends and his own brother, who are unsympathetic to him and repelled by his service. Their hostility only underscores his wasted life and violates everything Kovic was programmed to believe growing up in his flag-waving suburban family. As a youngster he was encouraged to play with war toys and savagely compete in macho sports; his parents valued winning at all costs. To score in their eyes, he enlisted in the Marines, later blaming them, especially his mother (a monstrous, Bible-thumping figure) for his horrible predicament.

Early on we see Kovic in an understaffed, filthy, rat-infested hospital, where he screams in pain for long periods of time before receiving any treatment. When he’s released, he lives an impoverished nomadic existence in Mexico with other veterans similarly helpless and hopeless. In one of the more striking scenes—bringing to mind Waiting for Godot—he and another wheelchair-bound vet get into a vicious altercation that borders on the comic as they scream and spit at each other in a tumbleweed-strewn stretch of desert.

Over time, Kovic becomes involved in the anti-war movement and in the end triumphs when he delivers a rousing speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention. It may be precisely how it happened, but it feels pat, predictable and calculated. Still, it was a watershed moment in films about vets and walked off with two Oscars.

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Though preceded by the Gulf War, the world changed irrevocably with the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, followed by the Afghanistan War and ongoing Iraq War. Rational thought and causality ceased to exist. Acts of terrorism could take place at any time, anywhere. Waterboarding was a form of interrogation. Drones made warfare impersonal and deeply personal simultaneously.

Good Killand Eye in the Sky illustrate the particular form of dread experienced by soldiers who operate drones digitally while literally seeing on a computer screen what’s happening on the ground thousands of miles away. The officer watches figures crumbling onto the ground as they’re killed thanks to his actions. In Eye in the Sky, British Army Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is struggling with the no-win morality of her duties. She’s charged with eliminating a particular terrorist but sees a child is in the line of fire. Collateral damage takes on new meaning.

Images of the Afghanistan-Iraq war—defined by a special kind of grotesque incoherence—were depicted onstage in Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, Bill Cain’s Nine Circles (a play that journeys through the fractured psyche of an Iraq war veteran), and especially Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, starring the late Robin Williams as a caged tiger who offers running commentary as two American marines and an Iraqi gardener try to find life’s meaning as they rummage through the detritus of war.

An added layer of the bizarre is also evident in such gritty war films as Rendition, Redacted, Jarhead, American Sniper and most pointedly in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker; the latter’s protagonist (Jeremy Renner) is a disturbed bomb-disposal expert. Bigelow’s films are equally notable for making the viewer feel the visceral, disorienting, almost psychedelic experiences of war.

At the same time, vets are drawn as worthy of our sympathy and concern. The war can be despised, but not the veteran who has also evolved. He’s as damaged as his Vietnam counterpart, but not especially rebellious or politically motivated. American Sniper touched upon his experience, Home of the Brave focused on it but without any special distinction, and Stop-Loss was a mixed bag.

But Neil Burger’s 2008 The Lucky Ones, another movie that did not get the recognition it deserved, was spot-on in its portrayal of the isolated vet coming home from a futile war. It was a fast-moving, at moments comic, though ultimately tragic story and character study.

Set within the traditional framework of a cross-country road trip, it follows three American soldiers who’ve returned from Iraq, only to find that their dreams of a homecoming—imaginings that sustained them—were delusional. They are homeless and devoid of a future.

One soldier’s (Tim Robbins) wife wants to live alone; another (Rachel McAdams) who visits the family of her lover, killed in battle, discovers he was married to someone else; and still another (Michael Peña) finds he is no longer in love with his fiancée.

In one telling bar scene, as the patrons cheer an idiotic game show, the vets are puzzled by the program and the hilarity it generates. After what they’ve been through, the show is not only unfunny, it’s meaningless, weird.

McAdams is especially fine as the optimistic and naïve Colee, who sheds her little-girl worldview. Robbins captures the understated anguish of a man realizing that not everyone is as moral and dutiful as he is. Peña has perhaps the most difficult role as the standard-bearer for American macho cockiness, made all the more delicate as a Latino, the stereotypical manifestation of virility. Yet the actor transforms him into a three-dimensional figure. The cinematography is stunning in reproducing an American landscape—at once magnificent and terrifying—as the trio moves westward, discovering they only have one another and the familiarity of the battlefield.

The Iraq war has spawned the grimmest film narrative to date: the soldier whose homecoming is in a flag-draped coffin. With little plot and sparse dialogue, HBO’s extraordinary Taking Chance (2009) recounted the real-life experiences of Lt. Col. Michael Strobl (Kevin Bacon), who asked to escort the body of 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Chance Phelps from the Air Force base in Dover, Delaware to Dubois, Wyoming, where the surviving family lived and where he was to buried with full military honors.

The whole trip is awash in ritual and at every transitional stop on the journey—from plane to train to hearse—the deceased is afforded ceremonial recognition as military personnel and others silently line up on either side of the casket to salute it as it passes. One of the most moving and visually powerful scenes in the film occurs as Strobl, driving behind the hearse, realizes that random drivers on the road have turned on their headlights as a sign of respect, forming a long, silent funeral cortege.

Not taking any position on the war itself—though some might feel it implicitly endorses it—the film pays tribute to the ultimate sacrifice a soldier makes for his country and gives the viewer permission to be thankful.

At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2008)dramatizing the lives of two soldiers who inform family members that their loved ones have been killed in Iraq—drives home the image of a freakish war. The “bereavement notification” gig says it all, its protocol a hideous exercise etched in absurdity. The soldiers are charged with adhering verbatim to a prepared script to be delivered in an affectless voice. Counseling, comforting and physical contact of any kind with the loved ones is strictly forbidden.

The tightly wound Gulf War veteran Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) demands that the gentler Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) remain impassive in the face of uncontrolled crying, rage, or even expressions of sympathy for them and their onerous jobs. Stone has been at it for years and he’s damaged beyond redemption. Though the film is flawed—often feeling like a platform for actors to express various forms of grief—Harrelson’s portrait of a self-destructive, girl-chasing alcoholic is remarkable. When his façade disintegrates, it’s one of the most intense expressions of repressed anguish and torment erupting on a screen.

Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying, the most recent—and most disappointing—films of the genre, attempts to marry an array of thematic elements that have come to define the vet film across the decades. This one wants it all ways. It celebrates the anti-authoritarian rebel and notions of military discipline, hierarchy and honor. The soldier’s uniform is mocked, and it’s also revered. Much of the film voices an anti-war stance as it tries to dramatize the similarity between the Vietnam and Iraq Wars—questioning the point of any of it—and ends on smarmy patriotic note.

Three Vietnam vets—the foul-mouthed, wrecked Sal (Bryan Cranston), the Reverend Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) and the beaten-down Larry, a.k.a. “Doc” (Steve Carrell)—reunite to bury Doc’s son killed in the Iraq War. They have nothing in common short of the peculiar bond that exists between abusers and victims. Without detailing the specifics of what happened, Sal and Mueller did something in Vietnam that unfairly landed Doc in the brig. Doc has never really moved on; neither has Sal—if anything, he’s gotten more abrasive and provocative. Mueller has found God. Throughout the journey, Sal taunts Mueller with his atheism.

Not wanting to bury his son alone, Doc travels to Sal’s seedy bar in Norfolk, Virginia, and asks him to accompany him to the Dover Air Force Base, where his son’s remains will be delivered before a funeral ceremony at Arlington. Doc’s request and Sal’s willingness to go is the first bit of credibility-defying narrative—the men haven’t had any contact in 40-plus years—and it only gets worse when they seek out the Reverend, who reluctantly comes onboard too. Some residual feelings of guilt allegedly motivate Sal and Mueller, who, as they encounter endless bureaucratic roadblocks and military protocol, grow increasingly enraged, arousing their old anti-establishment fervor.

But the most contrived scene takes place when Sal, a deranged truth-monger, urges Doc to view his son’s body, despite being warned that his whole face was blown off. He also makes sure Doc is told the demeaning—not heroic—details of his son’s death. Doc is grateful to have learned the truth and decides that his son shouldn’t be buried with full military honors at Arlington. Instead, he will take his son’s body home to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he will be buried in civilian clothes. The false premise makes the story possible—without it there’d be none—and sets the stage for the three vets to confront and confess as they travel.

In the end the vets make a 180-degree turnaround, suddenly appreciating the value of service and the grandeur of military honor. The actors do the best they can playing caricatures.

The film is especially disappointing in light of its roots, The Last Detail (1973), a great Hal Ashby film (based on Darryl Poniscan’s novel) that considers two world-weary Navy signalmen (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) charged with transporting an 18-year-old simpleton (Randy Quaid) from Norfolk to Portsmouth, where he’s sentenced to the brig for eight years for attempting to steal (he didn’t even succeed) $40 from a collection plate.

Poniscan resurrected the characters for his evocative 2005 novel and Linklater, for reasons that are not clear, kept its structure but changed the characters’ names and backstories, resulting in an incoherent mess.

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By contrast, Thank You for Your Service is of one piece, despite closing on a hopeful, affirmative note that we’re not prepared for but want nevertheless. Depending on your viewpoint, the ending is tacked on or reflects a new hybrid film that marries documentary-like fiction with idealistic Hollywood conclusions. Dramatizing the vets’ story is complicated and inexhaustible.

So what’s coming down the pike?Alexandre Moors’ Iraq War-themed The Yellow Birds, based on Kevin Powers’ well-received novel, generated poor reviews when it was shown at the Sundance Festival last January and a commercial release date is not yet slated. Positive buzz, however, surrounded Phil Klay’s award-winning short story collection Redeployment, and for a while Judd Apatow seemed interested in turning it into a film.

Whatever the fate of those two projects, there aremany narratives yet to be told, and all will be informed by one war or another tragically occurring somewhere.