Saturday Matinee 26 (backdated again): Memorial Day

We saw the highly positive reviews of this movie on Amazon.com.That made us cautiously optimistic, but some distraction (“Squirrel!”) led us away and we never clicked the buy-it-now button. Then, there it was in Wal-Mart, for the same price (between living in a no-sales-tax state, and using Amazon Prime, both of which we recommend highly, we’re spared complicated calculations about values, which leaves brain cells free for things like, “Have we got enough 77-grain Black Hills for the zombie apocalypse?” (Note to self — order more 77gr. -Ed).

We’ve been burned before by Hollywood’s depictions of the current war. Not to go all Sally Field, but soldiers and veterans know that “They hate us… they really hate us.” This comes through on and off screen in every portrayal by the drug-addled Woody Harrelson or sneering Sean Penn, and hundreds of other actors. We expect to be reviled by directors like Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino, and they’ve never let us down yet. It says something that the best movie so far out of the last decade of war was made for TV.

This movie stars relative newcomer Jonathen Bennett and Oscar-nominated (albeit not for this) John Cromwell and his son, James Cromwell. The Cromwells play the same character, Bud Vogel, as a young lieutenant in the 82nd Airborne in Europe in World War II and as a 70-something retiree in his hometown of Le Center, Minnesota in 1993. The story revolves around Bud’s combat memories, and the footlocker in which he’s symbolically put them away for fifty years. The physical resemblance between the lanky, beaked Cromwells is so strong that they’re able to pull this off, even if James is a bit long in the tooth to be playing a 20-something 1LT. Both are able actors, as is Bennett, which is a very good thing, because they have parts that require them to communicate a lot with only a few words penetrating their manly reserve.

The movie does not begin, though, with the vital footlocker framing scene, which is the first of very many flashbacks. The movie begins with Kyle Vogel, Ben’s grandson (played by Bennett), in his Army uniform, parking a car, picking up a holstered pistol from on top of a long letter (which is on screen for only a moment, so you can’t read it), leaving the door open and the keys in place, and walking off briskly into the woods.

We very nearly hit eject on the DVD at that point. “One more Hollywood hack job… suicidal-soldier edition.” The memory of those Amazon reviews, all but one glowing, stayed our hand. (We suspect the one negative reviewer had the same impulse we did and followed through with his eject button). What happens in the forest does not get resolved until the movie’s end. It’s worth your while to tough it out.

We’re suddenly in the war. Is the dead lamb on the side of the road an IED, or not? Facing this dilemma is a platoon of MN National Guard soldiers, led by SSG Kyle Vogel. It is an IED; a couple of insurgents are arguing in Arabic about whether to blow it or make the Americans approach more closely. The distant IED wounds Kyle and a medevac helicopter is called. He puts a piece of shrapnel in his breast pocket, and his squad makes fun of his predilection for taking souvenirs.

From the war we flash back  to a Le Center farmhouse in 1993. Four kids are playing hide-and-seek when one finds his grandfather’s dusty wartime footlocker. He brings it to his grandfather, who clearly does not like to be reminded of the memories that have been locked away with his souvenirs. Ultimately they cut a deal: Bud offers to tell the story of one item, and his grandson negotiates him up to three. The souvenirs include some we’ll learn the stories of — a Walther P38. a piece of shrapnel, a photograph — and some we won’t — a fighting knife, a compass. Each time Kyle chooses an item, you see the pain the memory inflicts on Bud, and each time, he tries to get Kyle to choose something else, anything else. But he tells the stories, which always have a twist, a turn, a leadership call, and regrets attached to them.

Flash forward to the hospital, where an earnest young doctor asks Kyle: “Which did you ask to see first?” and a grinning Kyle asks her back, “What would a 13-year-old boy ask for?” and after a brief stop on that 1993 porch we’re plunged into the story of the Walther, a story in which duty and humanity will pull young Bud in different directions.

The relationship between Kyle and Dr. Kelly Tripp is a profound one, set against the barriers of the doctor-patient and officer-NCO interfaces, but charged with honesty and intimacy. It’s not a sexual intimacy — Kyle is married, and you can tell as far as these characters are concerned, that’s that. But a little bit of tension is there. It’s a little gem of the director’s, actors’, and scriptwriter’s art.

The actress that plays Dr Tripp, Emily Fradenburgh, is attractive enough but not Hollywood-fake-pretty, and her talents apparently extend beyond the screen (she’s also credited with casting). There are numerous double and triple credits like that, and extensive use of World War II reenactors and National Guard soldiers also indicates that the budget for this film was very, very tight (IMDB estimates roughly $4 million).

Perhaps because it lacked a Hollywood-approved nihilistic message, perhaps because of that low budget leaving a mere pittance for promotion, perhaps because of an unfairly assigned R rating, it had a limited theatrical release last month (May, 2012) and was in DVD by month’s end — not coincidentally, Memorial Day. No “name” critic stooped to review it. The best way to encourage more films like this (and to honor the efforts of the many talented people who made it happen) is for this film to make money. The best way for this film to make money is for all of you who read this (at least, all of you in North America who can watch NTSC-encoded Region 1 DVD films) to buy a copy. Buy a few copies, give them to your civilian friends who don’t understand what the big deal about service is. If every reader who reads this blog bought one copy, and recommended it to one more person, the merits of the film would take it from there.

Like another tightly-budgeted war film, Saints and Soldiers, the art of the cast and the crew makes it punch far above its weight… the only give-aways are the “church” (actually an outbuilding dressed for the shoot) with US vs. Central European architecture, the closeness of some of the “Iraqi desert” shots which were taken in a disused mine or quarry in Mankato, MN, or the prevalence of rare-but-cool weapons among the reenactors (particularly the FG-42. Cool gun, just out of place here). Despite that, the use of reenactors means you get far fewer gear and weapons clinkers than the typical Hollywood crowd. (There was also a boot camp for the actors, which always pays off not just in terms of method-acting but also in helping them bond).

The best feature of the film is seeing Kyle trying to deal with leadership dilemmas with reference to his grandfather’s experience. In one case, caught on the horns of a Hobson’s choice, he chooses the action opposite from the one his grandfather regrets for life, and learns that sometimes having to make the decision means you’re going to regret it for life, anyway (we don’t want to be more specific on this spoiler). Some of the other characters, like the Guatemalan kid who’s serving to win his US Citizenship, are very deftly drawn.

If the movie has a fault it’s its tendency to draw scenes out a bit longer than necessary. Fifteen or twenty minutes could have been cut from the 104 minure runtime without much loss, or those minutes could have been used to extend the combat scenes. But that’s a quibble, not a complaint.

In the end, you’re left with a powerful take-away from this Memorial Day, and an urge to see more from these actors and this director (Sam Fischer) and writer (Marc Conklin). Thank you all for a film that shows the hell of war without making the men of war into demons.

Kyle keeps his souvenirs in a small tough-box, today’s equivalent of his grandfather’s footlocker. And as significant events in his tour occur, he locks up memories as his grandfather did, but you can tell he’s going to be a little more open and less reticent with them, and his own son, in turn, will hear the stories before he decides if he wants to answer the call to service.

What’s in your footlocker?