November 10, 2010
As the western world continues the struggle to make sense of the “War On Iraq” and their own extended occupation of a country that never seems to come any closer to being “free”, their civilians get to see an endless spate of films which attempt to understand some of the complex issues surrounding the events. Focusing on how the All-American families whose young boys and girls have gone abroad to fight for their country receive and deal with their losses seems to be the newest angle from which we are asked to consider the “conflict”.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a young soldier who is but three months away from the end of his military service. Recovering from injury and post-traumatic stress syndrome (though he notably denies suffering this) he is forced to serve out his time as a messenger for their Casualty Notification Service (a very official way of saying that he tells people their loved ones are dead.) His job, and thus the film’s central message, is simple and clear: the military is about protocol not emotion, following orders not empathizing, and carrying out difficult and trying tasks for the supposed greater good, not for individual or personal reasons. And whilst both SS Will Montgomery and his superior Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson) have served long enough to have learnt this lesson already, there is something about the experience of mediating between the military and the civilians they purportedly fight for that makes this lesson all the more piercing.
Upon assignment to the Casualty Notification Team, Montgomery is told two things; 1) it’s a “special assignment” and 2) “This mission is not simply important, it is sacred.” From here he is further taught by his slightly misguided but well-meaning recovering alcoholic mentor and partner Stone the subtle differences in both phraseology and terminology that must be used; “killed” or “died” are acceptable, but “deceased”, “body”, “expired”, “lost” and “passed away” for example, are not. Furthermore, and most significantly, they must always name the soldier. The ethics at play here would be best described as respectful as they intend to honour the soldier who has died, but never is the communication to extend beyond this most elementary of ethics and certainly it is forbidden to ever enter into moral obligation.
The soldiers who have died have done so because they were “doing their job”, just as, unpleasant though it may be, Montgomery and Stone are doing theirs, back on US soil. The parallel is indicative of the difficulties and adversities that soldiers encounter once they’ve enrolled; everything they do is the result of an order that has been carefully prescribed, the inference that they are in no way subject to “free will”. But Montgomery proves himself to be less than a model soldier; he doesn’t just “do his job”, he “feels”. Breaking all the rules, he becomes personally involved with a widowed woman and her son, physically hugs and makes personal apologies to family members who are distraught and angry with him for delivering the news, and even extends his humanity to his superior – Stone. Protegé to mentor, Montgomery teaches him the value of human life through the retelling of his own war experience, its simplistic lesson that there is still hope: “The sun came up and I didn’t feel like dying anymore.”
Set against an often stark mise-en-scene and carefully lit to show both Stone and Montgomery as heroes hurt in plight, The Messenger wants its audience to know that the “war effort” hasn’t been entirely in vain and that the individuals who are fighting, though numbers and workers on the one hand, are also just ordinary people on the other. The majority of the families they visit are from lower socio-economic backgrounds and belong to disparate races and religions. From this the audience may glean that many who enlist do so for personal reasons despite the fact that the military as an organisation remains disinterested in individuals’ motivations, and indeed we are told; “Sometimes the army has to be concerned with something bigger than the truth.”
But what exactly is bigger than the truth? I suppose that would be the promise they give which turns out to be a lie: signing up for service is not about each individual, it is not about freedom any more than it is about survival, it is about service and, one way or another, service is finite. It is no mistake that this film is released in Australia on Remembrance Day and that it hopes to remind people what individuals give in the name of a greater good.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.