As you read this, there are thousands of brave men and women in the Armed Services fighting all over the world. Few of us will ever have to experience the horrors of war, as well as the physical and psychological damage it causes. Even fewer of us will see The Lucky One, yet another Nicholas Sparks adaptation that will invade movie theaters this weekend. In the film, Zac Efron plays a young soldier who returns home from war, hoping to find the girl he…blah, blah, blah.
As asinine as the plot sounds, it did get Dan Fields, Brett Davinger and I thinking about the myriad films and TV shows that address not only what soldiers have to face during their service, but what challenges the may encounter when they return home. While a new Nicholas Sparks movie is nothing to celebrate, the men and women of the military definitely are.
Boardwalk Empire (creator Terrence Winter, 2010)
Boardwalk Empire is a unique show, and not just because it was the first sign that HBO was back on the path to small screen greatness after years of its big shows being primarily fluffy fare (yes, I’m talking about both Big Love and True Blood).
While Steve Buscemi is understandably billed as the lead for his excellent portrayal of Atlantic City treasurer Nucky Thompson, Boardwalk Empire actually seems made up of multiple shows. Not a pure ensemble like Treme, but more as though certain characters are the leads of their own series, all of which air within Boardwalk Empire. Michael Shannon’s Nelson van Alden, Michael K. Williams’ Chalky White, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein all take center stage in their own universes and must contend with their own supporting casts. But of these “mini-shows,” arguably the most fascinating was the one lead by Michael Pitt as World War I veteran/aspiring mob boss Jimmy Darmody.
Nucky’s surrogate son, Jimmy Darmody was clearly messed up before the war with severe Oedipal issues brought on by his mother Gillian (Gretchen Mol). While attending Princeton, Jimmy decides to join the Army during World War I, disappointing his mother and Nucky, who was hoping he’d follow in his illicit footsteps. His experiences in the trenches further added to his emotional disturbances, but he developed a kinship for fellow soldiers, particularly Richard Harrow- Boardwalk Empire‘s breakout character.
In Season 2, Jimmy became an even more important character as he was making moves against Nucky, forming alliances with Chicago and New Jersey mobs, and beginning to create his own power base with Harrow as his right hand man. Too young and inexperienced to take on such important duties, Jimmy cannot inspire the necessary level of confidence or fear in his followers. After his wife is killed in a revenge shooting, Jimmy goes on a downward spiral complete with heroin addiction before going to his death with complete acquiescence.
At the end of last season, Nucky murdered his former protégé, which marks a huge change in the series, as the Nucky/Jimmy relationship was one of its centerpieces, and in Nucky himself, as this marked the first time he actually got his hands dirty. How this affects the series remains to be seen. Even though losing Jimmy is disappointing, the show can almost definitely survive the death of even one of its most major characters.
Boardwalk Empire returns to HBO this fall.
I Am A Fugitive From a Chain Gang (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
Despite the cheesy title, Fugitive is a remarkably powerful film from the pre-Hays Code days of Hollywood. Unrelentingly dark and cynical, Fugitive criticizes the judicial system and those who uphold the law in ways that wouldn’t have been possible only a couple of years later. The movie is also one of the earliest to unflinchingly show the travails of the returning soldier, a topic film didn’t really tackle again until The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946.
The film stars Paul Muni as James Allen, a World War I veteran. Like many soldiers, his experiences affected him, and he can’t return to civilian life. While he’s welcomed back to his house and his job, there’s a depressing emptiness in both of those things that makes it impossible for him to readjust. So he rides the rails, only to discover that America is no place for returning troops. He encounters platoons of former soldiers who are destitute and living in poverty. He tries to pawn one of his medals only to learn that the pawnshop owner is overstocked with these trinkets.
Eventually, he is arrested and sentenced to a chain gang. He escapes and manages to rebuild his life. After refusing to succumb to blackmail from his malevolent wife, the cops learn about his whereabouts. His case makes headlines as people rush to his defense, but the authorities lie about giving him a pardon and send him back to prison. Although he escapes a second time, he is forced to live in the shadows leading to a conclusion that’s practically the inverse of Tom Joad’s “I’ll be there” speech from The Grapes of Wrath.
Rolling Thunder (dir. John Flynn, 1977)
Co-written by Taxi Driver scribe Paul Schraeder, Rolling Thunder is a grindhouse revenge classic starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. The film starts with Vietnam veteran Major Charles Rane (Devane) coming home after spending several years in a POW camp. Although the town heralds him as a hero and throws him a parade, Rane is somewhere else. Suffering from severe PTSD, he opts to live in a shed where he can barely sleep. Inundated with flashbacks from his torturous experience, Rane continues performing the same actions he did while imprisoned. He doesn’t feel emotionally connected to his family and cannot care when his wife reveals that she had an affair. During a break-in, criminals kill Rane’s wife and daughter and remove his hand via garbage disposal before shooting him and leaving him for dead.
He survives, and, with his hook hand, sets for vengeance, which leads to a shoot-out in a Mexican brothel. Along the way, he picks up a female supporter and fellow soldier Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones, who was Tommy Lee Jones even back then), who is ridiculously bored with his homelife and shows clear joy in joining Rane on his quest. He’s also given the film’s best line, which I won’t spoil.
While the grindhouse label might give the impression that Rolling Thunder is a cheesy movie, it’s not. Though it doesn’t have the emotional oomph of fellow back-from-Vietnam movie The Deer Hunter, it is a more serious and better made film than one would expect. Definitely worth seeing for fans of the Death Wish-style, gritty revenge genre.
When people talk about the movie Rambo, they’re usually talking about First Blood, one of the most original and thrilling action films of all time. The name confusion is understandable considering the franchises trajectory: First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo III and, most recently, Rambo. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but neither do the last three films.
Easily the best of the Rambo movies, First Blood plays with many of the viewers’ expectations, especially considering Stallone hadn’t yet established himself as a full-fledged action star though his work in Rocky and Rocky II clearly demonstrated his physical abilities.
As First Blood opens, we meet John Rambo (Stallone), a Vietnam vet who is hitchhiking his way through a small town in the Pacific Northwest. Even though he is minding his own business, the local hardass, Sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy), decides to begin harassing Rambo just because he doesn’t like his long hair and Army jacket. When Teasle hauls Rambo down to the station for causing a nuisance (i.e. looking for a place to eat), Rambo begins having flashbacks of the war and eventually escapes the jail and takes off into the woods, the entire police force in hot pursuit behind him.
While the film starts out as a relatively calm depiction of the discrimination that many Vietnam veterans had to endure, it quickly escalates into a fast-paced manhunt, with all manner of law enforcement attempting to take down just one guy hiding in a forest. Unfortunately for them, that one guy earned the Congressional Medal of Honor and knows how to survive under any conditions.
While it is ostensibly just an action vehicle for Stallone, First Blood is an honest portrayal of how long-lasting the psychological effects of war can be for some people. In a way, Rambo is very similar to Bruce Banner and the Incredible Hulk, only what sets Rambo off is not anger, but any threat of violence that stirs up memories of the torture he experienced in Vietnam. First Blood is not The Deer Hunter (not by a long shot), but it is still a solid picture about the type of difficulties veterans can face when they return home to “normal life.”
The soldiers who leave for war and (hopefully) come home aren’t the only ones affected by the fighting. The families that remain behind are left to manage without a father or mother; brother or sister; son or daughter. Brothers, from director Jim Sheridan (In America), focuses on both the soldier who comes home from war and the family who have found a way to manage life while he was gone.
The Cahill family is at the center of Brothers. Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) is the dutiful son with a loving and supportive wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), and two beautiful children. Sam’s screw-up brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), comes to stay with the family just before Sam is sent on another tour of duty in the Middle East.
When Sam’s helicopter goes down and he is considered missing in action, Tommy must step up to take care of his sister-in-law and her children. Tommy and Grace become very close, possibly stepping over a line or two. Things get really uncomfortable, though, when Sam is found alive and returns home, a shell of his former self.
It’s not his fault, but Maguire is totally wrong for the part of Sam Cahill. The mental trauma Sam experiences coupled with the horrific acts he is forced to commit requires a performance far outside of Maguire’s range. When Sam has a small psychological break, the audience has no choice but to laugh at the over-the-top attempt Maguire makes at trying to be emotionally disturbed. His wild-eyed screaming fit would have been much more convincing in the hands of another actor.
Nevertheless, the film does give insight into what the families go through when a parent is deployed halfway around the world. The relationship that develops between Tommy and Grace is inappropriate to be sure, but almost understandable given the fragile emotional states the two find themselves in.
One of the most exciting new shows of 2011, Showtime’s Homeland is not only about a soldier coming home from the war in Iraq, it is also about loyalty, patriotism, honor and trust. Aside from boasting a terrific cast, the show is also brilliantly written and orchestrated so that each episode upsets the viewers’ guesses about what is going to happen.
After missing for eight years and being assumed dead, Sergeant Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis) is found alive by a team of Marines on a reconnaissance mission. Brody is brought to safety and is told he will be returning home to his wife, Jessica (Morena Baccarin), and their two children. This would be great news if CIA Agent Carrie Matheson (Claire Danes) hadn’t been told by one of her informants in the Middle East that an American soldier who had been held as a prisoner by Al Qaeda had switched sides and would be returning to America as a sleeper agent. Is Sergeant Brody that soldier? That is what Carrie (and we the viewers) spends the first season of the show trying to find out.
While Brody’s allegiance and motivations are questionable and constantly shifting, the effects of war are as plain as day. For eight years, Brody didn’t know if he would survive his captivity or see his family again. When he returns home, he has trouble connecting with his children (one of whom was a baby when he left) or being physically intimate with his wife. More than that, his celebrity as a war hero lands him in the public eye, something he probably wasn’t a fan of before his time in Iraq and which he downright loathes now.
Similar to Brothers, Homeland also focuses a lot on how Jessica tried to cope with Brody away. Left to raise the children on her own, Jessica finds solace and comfort in Brody’s best friend, Mike (Diego Klattenhoff), and after several years the two begin having a secret sexual relationship. When Brody does return, Jessica is left in an unenviable position, making her storyline also quite interesting.
Another fascinating aspect of Homeland is its focus on how Brody is portrayed in the media. His story is used by all manner of politicians to either support or oppose the war in the Middle East. In one of the most believable twists in the first season, Brody is told that he should fill the vacant seat left by a Congressman since his public image will guarantee him a win. It’s not hard to imagine that soldiers are often treated this way, being used for political gain because of their perceived influence on the American people. Homeland handles this, and many other topics, with a perfect blend of honesty and dramatic tension.
Matthew Newlin lives in St. Louis, Missouri and has been a film critic for over six years. He has written for numerous online media outlets, including “Playback:STL” and “The Weissman Report.” He holds a Master’s of Education in Higher Education from the University of Missouri-St. Louis and is an Assistant Director of Financial Aid. A lifelong student of cinema, his passion for film was inherited from his father who never said “No, you can’t watch that.”