With Johnny Got His Gun, I could console myself with the fact the condition of the main character is highly unlikely. While many young men are killed and crippled in war, the notion of a mind trapped in such a reduced body feels improbable, and Dalton Trumbo was not so much sketching a real medical condition so much as being symbolic. Even if such a thing were to happen today, medical technology would offer hope of some recovery (I hope).
But with The Messenger (2009), the situation hits close to home. With two wars in the past nine years, more than 5,000 American soldiers have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins. Someone has the job of informing their families.
Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) is a decorated Iraq War veteran with three months left in the service when he is assigned the task of telling the next of kin when their sons, daughters, and spouses are killed overseas. Montgomery doesn't feel he's up to it, but he's paired with Captain Tony Stone (an Oscar-nominated Woody Harrelson), an officer who's been doing this job for a long time and rigorously sticks to procedure and protocol: keep on script, say "killed" or "died," park a distance from the residence, and never make physical contact. You're telling them the worst news of their lives, Stone says, not there to be a new best friend. Needless to say, no one takes the news well.
I considered turning the film off after about 20 minutes. Not because it's bad; it's very good, but the sadness and loss is palpable and almost overwhelming. We see Montgomery and Stone inform several people over the course of the movie, and it's impossible to say which one has the most impact. Nothing feels like a throw-away scene or exploitative. Director Oren Moverman relies on a hand-held camera and unbroken takes for these scenes, and the viewer is forced to confront a lot of raw pain: tears, anger, threats, shock. Each one is heartbreaking in its own way.
So do I recommend the film? Absolutely, but be warned, it's hard to sit through at times. It addresses an issue that's hardly discussed when the nation goes to war. After all, it's always someone else's kid who gets killed, and it's always someone else who has the duty to notify the family. Until it's you. That's the truth of The Messenger.