Many Americans don’t need a movie to appreciate the human toll that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have exacted on communities in this country. For those who do, there is The Messenger, Oren Moverman’s haunting new film about a captain and a young staff sergeant working the army’s "bereavement notification" beat, which requires them to go around the area near Fort Dix, NJ, knocking on the doors of relatives and spouses to inform them that one of their loved ones has been killed.
The movie isn’t quite as artful as some bedazzled critics have made it out to be. Some of the dialogue is stilted; a couple of scenes seem overly scripted or forced. Still, in the course of two tightly compressed hours, The Messenger manages to offer something so much of the news coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has not: a glimpse into the shattered lives of the bereaved. We watch people’s faces compress into grief as they realize their worst fear has come to pass. We hear them wail uncontrollably or sputter in rage. Although there is no gory war footage in the movie, the emotional weather hovers between uncomfortable and unbearable, as viewers take in the small scenes of devastation that have unfolded in countless living rooms and vestibules in recent years, yet remained largely hidden from view. The Messenger’s director, Oren Moverman, is Israeli, and I wondered after seeing it whether part of what drew him to this subject was the creepiness of being in a country ‘at war’ where so many citizens are completely insulated from its costs, something that wouldn’t be possible if America, like Israel, had a draft.
The backdrop to The Messenger is, tellingly and predictably, Iraq: the bad, pointless, unwinnable war. Yet its timeliness owes to Afghanistan, where, on Friday, two more American servicemen were killed, meaning two more unwelcome visits paid by bereavement notification officers to parents or spouses somewhere. In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, there is a short, poignant piece on Afghanistan by Garry Wills, who notes that one thousand soldiers were wounded there in the last three months alone. These soldiers are the lucky ones, not killed but merely injured, a travail conveyed with great force in The Messenger through the character of Will Montgomery, a staff sergeant who returns from Iraq a "hero," but with a severely damaged eye and badly fractured psyche that has him looking for ways to numb himself and escape.
Escalating the war in Afghanistan will vastly expand the ranks of soldiers consigned to this fate, which is why Garry Wills hopes Obama will end it, even if this deprives him of the opportunity to serve a second term. "I have great hopes for the Obama presidency… especially if he could have two terms," writes Wills. But, "If [pulling out] costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?… Presidents who just kick the can down the road are easy to come by. Lost lives and limbs are not."