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9/11 Film Series: The Messenger

The 9/11 Film Series continued this evening with The Messenger, which tells the story of soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, 9/11 is generally thought of as a unique and unprecedented event that disrupted and fundamentally changed the world. We can take that assumption as at least partially true, in that the events of 9/11 reshaped the way Americans view themselves and the world, and that turned into an imperative to rid the world of so-called “evil doers.” From there America marched into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and along the way disrupted our own identity as absolute good fighting absolute evil. In the wake of the the destruction wrought upon us, as dramatized in United 93, and later having to face the results of the destruction we wrought in response, as documented in Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, the culture and the individuals in it are placed in a vulnerable and uncertain place in which we have to redefine who we are and what we are doing.

And it is at this point in the 9/11 Film Series that we view This Messenger. This film continues the search for meaning in the post-9/11 (and post-Abu Ghraib) era and it dramatizes that search in the lives of the soldiers on a Casualty Notification Team and a widow of a recent casualty in the war. In The Messenger, that search is defined by the characters’ interactions with each other and their gradual shift from isolation to companionship.

The Messenger uses a very realistic approach to its film making. Director Oren Moverman uses a lot of hand held cinematography, natural lighting, long cuts, and minimal music score. Yet, this is clearly a carefully assembled film. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster’s characters are staged in separate shots or in opposing parts of the frame but gradually move together throughout the course of the film as their bond strengthens. The film uses a similar approach in the relationship between Foster and Samantha Morton’s characters, as Foster starts out looking at her from a distance and gradually integrates himself into her life. That shift in frame is central to the film’s underlying theme.

Although there are a number of terrific performances in The Messenger, it is in Ben Foster’s role that the film dramatizes its central issue: what is a soldier to do when the fighting is over? Foster plays his role wonderfully; in the first act of the story his character is downright frightening. He is on a slow boil and the character’s rage is palpable Foster’s performance.

But over the course of The Messenger, Foster’s character is changed and softened by the connections he establishes with Harrelson and Morton’s characters and the pain he witnesses in his casualty notifications. Receiving compassion and engaging in it create the opportunity for all three of the lead characters to confront their losses and eventually come to some new level of consciousness. This development is illustrated in a subtle but cleverly placed image near the film’s finale. Harrelson and Foster sit on a couch as Foster recounts his war experience while a television set across from them displays a tornado wiping out a group of homes. There are a number of ways to interpret that metaphor, but I’ll suggest that this natural catastrophe mirrors what has happened to Foster’s soul. His confession of survivor’s guilt is in part due to living through a large destructive event whose causes and effects are larger than any one human being’s ability to grasp. 

Without belaboring the point or sulking in melodrama, The Messenger explores the experience of soldiers returning from the war and more broadly asks what it means to live in the post-9/11 period. In the context of this film series, coming after after Restrepo and Taxi to the Dark Side, this film takes on added dimensions. But what The Messenger ultimately suggests is the possibility of hope through compassion and through love in all of its forms: romantic, platonic, familial, and brotherly.

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