Bearers of Bad News

I have always admired and deeply respected army and hospital chaplains for their emotional and spiritual strength and their ability to stand with those who mourn during the sacred time and space of loss.  The same could be said of those who must bear the actual bad news of the death of a loved one to the family and friends they’ve left behind.  The other critically acclaimed “war movie” of 2009, The Messenger, focused on such a task and was, in many ways, more compelling, for me at least, than its award-winning counterpart, The Hurt Locker.

The Messenger, written and directed by Oren Moverman, tells the story of two Army Casualty Notification Officers, Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) and Will Montgomery (Ben Foster).  The younger Montgomery is an Iraq War hero with three months of service left, while his commanding officer, Stone, is a career soldier.  An early scene in which Stone tells Montgomery their rules of engagement…or disengagement as the case may be…does a phenomenal job of setting the stage for the film and summing up the difficulty of this job.  The film follows Stone and Montgomery from door to door as they bear the tragic news of death.  It also focuses on their emerging friendship and the difficulties of living after battle, particularly in the face of such emotionally disconnected missions.

Ben Foster as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery.

The role of CNOs is so difficult and the film is so compelling because not only must they navigate the mine fields of grief into which they are forced, but they must also do this while dealing with their own guilt, grief, anger and sheer frustration.  Moreover, the restrictions on their ability to react during casualty notification, while certainly maintaining a level of professionalism, severely hampers their own emotional well-being as well.  Stone tells Montgomery, “We’re just there for notification…not God…not heaven.”  They are not to touch the NOK (next-of-king), except for an occasional handshake.  They’re not there for hugs or tears either, which is physically, at least, not a problem for Montgomery, whose left eye was damaged in battle and constantly dries out.

Samantha Morton as the widowed Olivia Pitterson.

At first, Montgomery is just as able as Stone to keep up a marble-like facade.  Yet we see deeper into that damaged eye that all is not well with Montgomery, nor can he remain particularly aloof from the victims’ families.  He becomes “involved” with Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), a widow of one of the recently deceased.  Their involvement with one another is highly emotional, not sexual, but is hamstrung by both a sense of propriety and their own emotional instability.  Towards the end of the film, we learn that Montgomery struggles to accept his identity as an American war hero as he feels a greater sense of guilt for the death of one of his soldiers than pride for saving two others.  Stone, it seems, has issues of his own, particularly a morbid desire to have had the chance to serve more heroically in Desert Storm and Shield.  He’s guilty of wanting to play a “mine’s bigger than yours” game which he could never possibly win against Montgomery, and when he finally learns of Montgomery’s actions in battle, he breaks down in tears.

To say that The Hurt Locker was not last year’s best film is not to discount its worth and contributions to the emerging genre of Iraq/Afghanistan war films.  Though it revealed the many ways that war tears individuals and families apart, it was still very much an “action” movie at heart, trading on the suspense of bomb defusal.  The Messenger seems to be a more complex film and the type that we need more of as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wear on.  Though it concludes with a note of hope, The Messenger still seems to plead in Lamentation-like fashion, “How long?”

The Messenger (113 mins) is rated R for language and some sexual content/nudity and is available on DVD.