‘Messenger’ Delves Into a Hidden Aspect of War

Posted November 13, 2009 at 3:49pm

Hollywood has certainly produced plenty of films that deal with war and its aftermath. “The Messenger,— however, looks at what happens to a soldier’s family when that soldier dies in the line of combat.

Starring Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson, “The Messenger— follows the lives of two Army soldiers picked for the Army’s Casualty Notification service, a unit of the Army tasked with notifying the next of kin when a soldier dies in the line of duty.

Will Montgomery (Foster) served in the Iraq War, fighting heroically and saving the lives of his fellow soldiers in a firefight. He is placed in the notification unit with Tony Stone (Harrelson), an “expert— in this line of work. Stone tells his new recruit about how his human emotions may get the better of him during the notifications, but he is to “stick to the script— and not touch the next of kin under any circumstance.

The goal of Stone and Montgomery is to be the first to notify the next of kin — to make sure the Army is the first to tell them, and not have them find out through cable news or the Internet. Time after time, the men do their duty, giving automated and scripted responses to the grievers.

Each notification is difficult to watch because the viewer knows why Montgomery and Stone have arrived before the family member does, but it doesn’t take long for the next of kin to figure it out. The varied reactions on display run from family members spitting on the messengers to saying they are relieved about not having to worry about their family members any longer.

It’s the third notification that causes Montgomery trouble. Here he tells Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton) the news of her husband’s death. Montgomery shows his more human side and opens up personally to Olivia: He sees the widow’s son in the window and asks if he should also break the news to the boy. Before, he never would have done this since he was under strict orders to only say certain things and not touch, hug or provide empathy for the next of kin. The film presents the audience with a moral dilemma as Montgomery tries to complete his duty of death notification for the Army while trying to help one of the war’s victims.

“The Messenger— is by no means a fast-paced war film or one that tries to be preachy. It treads lightly on the subject of war, telling the often-untold story of the consequences of war, those painful moments when the loved ones left back home have to deal with the loss.

Screenwriter and first-time director Oren Moverman wraps the audience in the story of “The Messenger,— which brings to mind each time we are suddenly told that a loved one has passed away.

That connection makes it the film’s biggest strength. Although it’s rather slow-paced and leaves Montgomery’s final status unresolved, viewers will be moved by the film.

Harrelson and Foster offer performances that display the varied emotions required of soldiers who must do their duty despite the toll it takes on their personal lives.

“The Messenger— is playing now in the D.C. area at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.