December 20, 2006 | Comments ()

By John Williams | Film | December 20, 2006 |


Like a movie about a cop on the verge of retirement, Home of the Brave begins by painting targets on the chests of its characters, a group of National Guard soldiers in Iraq who are told they’ll be heading back home … in two weeks. Oh, dear. After learning the good news, Vanessa (Jessica Biel) actually starts talking about how much she misses her young son. Brave’s the right word for someone who so blithely tempts the gods of Dramatic Comeuppance.

Soon, the group is sent on a humanitarian mission (“some good ‘hearts and minds’ shit,” according to the superior who assigns it), an undertaking the audience can see going horribly wrong sometime while talking to the babysitter before leaving for the theater. It ends in pretty spectacular fashion, with a roadblock and an ambush. Despite a few too many slow-motion shots, it’s easily the most effective sequence in the movie. It doesn’t hurt that, for those five minutes, no one talks much.

Vanessa loses a hand in the attack, but she’s saved from death by a quick-acting medic named Will (Samuel L. Jackson). It’s a harrowing, graphic scene, and for a minute I wondered if Home of the Brave was going to exceed my expectations. Before long, though, the soldiers returned home, to Spokane, Washington, and my expectations returned to the dank cellar from which they had crawled. In Spokane, the movie somberly surveys the domestic battlefields that await Vanessa, Will, and two other primary characters scarred by events that occurred while they pursued insurgents after the ambush — Tommy (Brian Presley), who witnessed the death of a close friend, and Jamal (50 Cent, here modestly billed as Curtis Jackson), who accidentally shot an innocent woman.

It’s likely that every American at this point has a fairly strong opinion, one way or another, about America’s continuing presence in Iraq. Every American, that is, except for screenwriter Mark Friedman. This is his first effort, and it suffers mightily from his inability to conjure any dramatic complication or progression once the soldiers are back in the States. His script might as well have been a two-sentence acting exercise: “Look and behave like you just got back from war. Now do it for 90 minutes.” Attempts at political commentary are particularly awkward, as when Tommy relates a tender story about an Iraqi child and a U.S. soldier, and his friend says “Wait, I thought they all hated us.” Tommy pauses, wistfully stares into the distance and says, “Not all of ‘em. …”

The movie deals with Tommy’s depression (his father — a no-nonsense mechanic, natch — wants him to become a cop and discourages him from attending therapy sessions, since they’re for “pussies”), and it gives 50 Cent a couple of extended scenes (in which he doesn’t embarrass himself, but I don’t think he has to set the alarm for the morning Oscar nods are announced). Mostly, though, we follow the fate of Will and Vanessa.

Jackson does what he can with a role that’s several leagues beneath him. He has to utter generic bitter lines to his wife (“You want us to come back like nothing happened”), his angry son, and eventually his therapist.

It’s Biel who surprised me. From my previous brief exposure (and from the first five minutes here, come to think of it), she seemed to share both the complexion and the acting chops of a mannequin. And while I’m sure there are stunningly beautiful soldiers out there, she seems more than a bit miscast. Still, she’s not bad, despite being hamstrung by the same script everyone else is working from. In one wordless scene, attempting to unbutton her uniform with her new prosthetic hand, ending up slumped at the foot of the bed, alternately angry, confused, and pleading, she’s actually quite good.

In the end, though, I couldn’t convince myself (I took a couple of days to try) that Home of the Brave deserves to be judged with more leniency than any other lemon. Inarguably, it has better, nobler intentions than countless movies that should have gone straight to DVD or Lifetime, but like all of its brethren, it’s a smorgasbord of stilted, unintentionally hilarious dialogue. There’s a bizarre scene in which Jackson takes time out from a pretty serious episode of DUI to pick up a few unknown gardeners and take them home for Thanksgiving dinner. He then launches into a speech and an ensuing act of violence at the dinner table that are so over the top they rival a scene in Deep Blue Sea, in which his character delivers a passionate, terribly written speech about the violence of nature (“You should see ice. It moves like it has a mind.”) before being suddenly, violently devoured by an animatronic shark.

But my favorite moment in Home of the Brave comes when Vanessa is confronted by a boyfriend who she’s had trouble feeling comfortable with since returning home. After she tells him it’s essentially over between them, he says, “I guess it only takes one good hand to push people away.” That laugh (which I suppressed, for civility’s sake) might have been a good moment, but I don’t think it was intended to be the best thing I took away from the film (or the scene, obviously).

I suppose there are people who still need it proven to them that war leaves deep scars, and that support of our troops is important whether or not we agree with a particular war, and that CGI can make it look like Jessica Biel really doesn’t have a right hand. Those people should go see this movie, because those are important things to learn. But I assume most of you know them already, so I suggest you take the $10 you might have spent on this ticket and put it toward a holiday gift to a real-life soldier.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s an editor at Harper Perennial and a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

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Paving the Road to Hell

Home of the Brave / John Williams

Film | December 20, 2006 | Comments ()



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