A Meandering Messenger, Yet Another Iraq War Film

The Iraq war has been a near constant source of inspiration for Hollywood screenwriters eager to have their say on the subject. Some of their films made very little money. Others drew a wave of brickbats from critics. A fair amount fell squarely into both camps, leaving audiences less than eager for more.

Most shared a predictably liberal viewpoint of the war and its backers.

The Messenger tries a different approach. The movie zeroes in on the officers assigned to tell families their loved ones have died on the battlefield. It’s a dicey subject for a feature film -- what could be more depressing than watching ordinary people hear their sons and daughters will never return home again? And how can a screenwriter tell such a story while avoiding old ideological debates?

The Messenger, which opened in select cities on November 13, does a noble job of avoiding those pitfalls, but it still can’t help showing soldiers as being irrevocably damaged from their time spent in combat. Even if the soldiers fought in a war that was over in a matter of weeks.

Ben Foster stars as Will, a troubled young sergeant and Iraq war hero assigned to inform families when their sons or daughters were killed in action. He has no formal grief counseling experience, so his superiors assign an older, experienced officer named Tony (Woody Harrelson) to walk him through the process. The two visit the homes of a number of families, ready to deliver a standardized message along with their mechanical condolences. It’s an arduous mission, one Tony appears rigorously suited to handle. He’s the kind of soldier who obeys any order, no questions asked.

Stick to the script. Don’t get too close to the families in question. Offer follow-up assistance and then leave as soon as possible. Tony insists Will follow the rules set before them, like never touching the NOK (next of kin).