Call it the little movie that could. "Fort Bliss," a feature film about an Army medic/single mom returning stateside after a tour in Afghanistan and struggling with re-entry, is enjoying an extended theatrical release in Washington, continuing its rise from festival favorite and video on demand to big screens, thanks largely to grass-roots support.
The movie, directed by Claudia Myers and starring Michelle Monaghan, focuses on the challenges Monaghan's character, Maggie Swan, has reconnecting with her young son and simply adjusting to not having bullets flying overhead. It's a timely film, particularly as the country continues to grapple with questions about U.S. troops' presence in Afghanistan and calls for more investment of blood and treasure in Iraq and possibly Syria get louder.
That doesn't mean it was an easy sell. Josh Levin, general manager of the West End Cinema, said, "I originally turned it down. I turned it down cold," when contacted by distributors about a run at his Foggy Bottom theater. He said it was an easy call "without any editorial comment about the films," because he's seen over and over again that when it comes to movies about Iraq and Afghanistan, there's just no audience. "I just dismissed it out of hand."
But the film's champions wouldn't let up, escalating from distributors to members of the local film community (Myers is an American University professor), to veterans and military groups, to finally John Sullivan, the film's producer and a graduate of St. Albans, "who sicced the St. Albans mafia," Levin joked.
It was then Levin realized there was an audience. "The level of effort that went into lobbying me went from being annoying to impressive," he said, and he surmised that such an effort would likely lead to ticket sales. Over the weekend, the movie played to packed houses and featured question-and-answer sessions with Sullivan, who, Levin noted, never failed to tell the audience how wrong the theater's general manager initially was about the film's appeal.
The good-natured ribbing Levin endured was for a movie with a heavy moral and family crisis.
Monaghan has starred in some tough roles, such as in "Gone Baby Gone," Ben Affleck's adaptation of a Dennis Lehane crime novel about a missing child, and as Maggie Hart in HBO's "True Detective," and this current role fits into that niche. "I'm really drawn toward grounded characters, and characters that have a real complexity to them. ... I guess you could say I'm drawn to the darker side," she said in a recent interview with CQ Roll Call, adding, "To me, it doesn't feel dark. It just feels like real life."
This story, one grounded in the realities of day-to-day life for returning military personnel, gets an extra dose of authenticity with its location shots at Fort Bliss, Texas. Located outside El Paso, Fort Bliss is home to more than 30,000 soldiers and 10,000 civilian employees, a world unto itself.
As Levin's initial reaction to the film suggests, audiences might think they know what goes on in military families, or maybe they're tired of hearing it, but this movie confronts the viewer with a plot that is the direct result of the decisions political and military leaders have made about war over the past decade.
"It's not black and white. These are people that are living in a pretty gray world. I think most of us do," Monaghan said, pointing out that the movie goes beyond easy categorization in its portrayal of her character, who must make decisions about her role as a mother and whether she should re-enlist.
That story is a good one to keep in mind as policymakers in Washington weigh the question of more boots on the ground in combat zones the world over. "It's not every film I screen that the secretary of Defense comes to see," Levin said. Chuck Hagel attended the Saturday evening show and stayed for the Q-and-A. "It was awesome," Levin said.
And now the movie, initially slated for a one-week run from Sept. 26 through Oct. 2, will play through at least Oct. 9, a reflection of audience support.
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