Film-Forward Review: [HOME OF THE BRAVE]

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Jessica Biel as Vanessa Price
Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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Directed by: Irwin Winkler.
Written by: Mark Friedman.
Produced by: Rob Cowan, George Furla, & Avi Lerner.
Director of Photography: Tony Pierce-Roberts.
Edited by: Clayton Halsey.
Music: Stephen Endelman.
Released by: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Country of Origin: USA. English. 101 min. Rated R.
With: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Biel, Curtis Jackson, Brian Presley, Chad Michael Murray, Christine Ricci, Victoria Rowell, & Sam Jones III.

From the opening roar of the MGM lion, Home of the Brave intentionally recalls Hollywood’s Golden Age, specifically 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives as updated to the current Iraqi war. Samuel L. Jackson, as Dr. Will Marsh, has the Fredric March role, the older professional returning to his suburban family haunted by the youths he lost under his care. He similarly starts drinking too much.

Jessica Biel has the Harold Russell part as the amputee, independent Vanessa Price. She reflects the one in seven soldiers serving in Iraq who is a woman, where restrictions on combat roles have relegated women to support duty, such as drivers, putting them equally on the front lines against the insurgency.

Brian Presley, as Tommy Yates, takes on the handsome Dana Andrews role, the restless vet who no longer fits in with his previous life and family's expectations. It’s to scriptwriter Mark Friedman’s credit that he didn’t give Tommy a romance with either Biel or Christina Ricci, in a cameo as Sarah, the grieving girlfriend of his best friend Jordan (Chad Michael Murray, and fans of TV’s One Tree Hill should be warned that Murray is only in the first half hour).

As Jamal Aiken, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson eschews his rap star/music video posturing, though he is sometimes unintelligible in his first non-semi-autobiographical film role. Jamal recalls World War I shell-shocked veterans and Vietnam War vets with posttraumatic stress syndrome, but his character’s arc is the most clichéd. Even Tommy’s ex-boss warily half-jokes about returning vet stereotypes, “I don’t want you to go all psycho on me or nothing.” We get very little context on his character other than his growing frustration over disability paperwork, probably because 50 Cent’s role was expanded during filming.

The opening half-hour looks and feels a lot like Black Hawk Down, also filmed in the same Moroccan town, where Home’s four characters intersect in a “hearts and mind sh--” humanitarian mission of delivering supplies. Their frequent flashbacks to this ambush are handled very well, where it was impossible to tell if civilians were friend or foe, carrying a lollipop or a detonator. Unconventionally, these flashbacks are frequently projected like a layered transparent scrim onto their faces, representing Dr. Marsh’s recall of his service “like a hazy dream.” Tony Pierce-Roberts’ gritty cinematography throughout recalls his World War I drama The Trench much more than his Oscar-nominated Merchant-Ivory work.

The film’s strongest element is in showing the veterans' dealings with the overwhelmed government bureaucracy, whether it’s the Department of Defense or Veterans’ Affairs that cannot cope with the volume and extent of the their physical and emotional problems and needs, particularly for returning National Guard troops who do not have the same support structure as career soldiers living on base. In a keen exchange, Tommy’s and Vanessa’s chance reunion is mostly taken up with a catalog of the anti-depression and insomnia meds they’ve been given in lieu of long term treatment. The film also points up the conflict between therapy and macho culture, particularly among working-class men, that sees such talk as a weakness, with Tommy’s father warning his son, “You don’t want them thinking you’re a pussy.”

With its stress on the intense Band of Brothers camaraderie of guys just doing their jobs, the politics of the war are only dealt with peripherally. Sarah is surprised by Tommy's positive memory of a civilian encounter (“I thought they all hated us”) and challenges Tommy’s rationale about defending our country. Marsh’s son Billy (Sam Jones III, getting to show much more range than in TV’s Smallville) conflates adolescent rebellion with an anti-war stance, culminating in a notable free speech confrontation between his father and assistant principal.

But for all these good points and well-meaning intentions, too many issues are dealt with through long, stilted conversations rather than being visualized. Irwin Winkler’s directing is too pedestrian, with each scene going from wide shot to close up, with a way too melodramatic score. Even the closing Sheryl Crow song over the credits is not one of her best. Nora Lee Mandel
December 15, 2006



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