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Survivors | The Nation

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Survivors

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The first third of Oren Moverman's new drama, The Messenger, is so cadenced and automotive that it might almost be Iranian. Two US soldiers--an experienced, older captain (Woody Harrelson) and a young sergeant who is uncomfortably new to his assignment (Ben Foster)--drive around an unnamed area, where they visit a variety of buildings, introduce themselves to a variety of characters and at each stop officially inform someone that a child or spouse has been killed in Iraq. That's about it. There's little for you to think about beyond the streets glimpsed through the windshield, the recitation of the prepared script ("The secretary of defense regrets to inform you...") and the reaction that has to be endured. This part of the film is structured to reduce you to tears at ten-minute intervals, and it succeeds.

About the Author

Stuart Klawans
The Nation's film critic Stuart Klawans is author of the books Film Follies: The Cinema Out of Order (a finalist for...

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Maybe you think America needs a movie like this--in which case, Harrelson's character will agree with you. While training Foster in the performance of his duty, which requires a lot of nerving up before the task and a lot of simmering down afterward, he adds a political tirade to his unfiltered stream of instruction, invective, self-dramatization and lewd opinionating, to the effect that citizens who endorse a war ought to know its cost. Harrelson needn't have said it; the events you've seen have already made the point. But the soldier he's playing is the expansive type--Foster is the one who's quiet and tightly wound--so the speech gets by as a character's outpouring, as much as a filmmaker's statement.

The other line of dialogue that serves such a dual purpose is spoken in anger by Foster when he can no longer bear to deliver the blow and then retreat, in soldierly discipline, from its result: "We walk into these people's lives. We don't know shit." The sergeant will therefore learn. He needs to connect with another human being (Harrelson at this point doesn't count); while Moverman, for his part, needs to get the audience involved in the character's emotions. Granted, America needs to grieve; but it won't pay at the box office for 105 minutes of pure mourning. So we get the rest of The Messenger, which develops the little hints of backstory about Foster that were planted in the first third, while moving him into an awkward courtship with a freshly widowed military wife (Samantha Morton).

The adrenaline level drops, the whiff of political bile dissipates and The Messenger becomes a lesser film than it was at the beginning--but not at all a bad one. For one thing, it continues to be about the survivors, those people the sergeant said he wanted to know, without yet being able to admit that he was one of them. For another thing, it justifiably puts its faith in Foster, an actor with a bladelike body and edgy light baritone, who in previous roles has earned something of a reputation for psychopathic menace. If you've seen him in Alpha Dog or the remake of 3:10 to Yuma, you know him by his thin, sardonic smile and quickness of attack. Here, all that nervous power is turned inward. Foster watches, and holds himself in check. You sense the strain; but this time, the character you fear for is him.

I admire The Messenger, some of it enormously. I just wish that the healing didn't have to start so fast. We've waited a long time for a Moverman to make us feel the wound. Couldn't we have borne it for one more hour?

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The flying fish have turned into airplanes in an upside-down world, dropping fish-bombs into a rising sea of flames. It is August 1945, and Emperor Hirohito (Issey Ogata) is dreaming in his marine biology laboratory. Sometime after he awakens, he will be informed that the Americans are waiting to take him away. He will emerge alone from the little white villa, dressed in a swallowtail suit, and allow the soldiers to conduct him to the headquarters of General MacArthur, where for the first time in his life he will turn a doorknob by himself. Despite the pain it causes MacArthur's interpreter, Hirohito will also lower himself by speaking English to the American general. He is continually busy forming silent words, his lips gulping like a fish.

Scenes from Alexander Sokurov's 2005 film The Sun: the third work in his twentieth-century dictators series, after Moloch (Hitler) and Taurus (Lenin), and the one that's melancholy and a little hopeful. After a long delay, it is at last being distributed theatrically in the United States, starting with a run in New York at Film Forum (opening November 18). Nobody who cares about film will need a second hint.

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