no, thank YOU

Man, is Eagle Eye stupid.

But Neil Burger’s The Lucky Ones is a lovely movie. It’s the story of three Iraq vets, two home on leave and a third getting out for good, who get stranded together at an airport and decide to share a rental car to St. Louis. Tim Robbins plays Cheever, a middle-aged reservist trying to get home to his wife, Rachel McAdams is Colee, a young private going to deliver a dead friend’s guitar to his parents, and Michael Peña as TK, a confident sergeant with all the answers who’s been made impotent by a shrapnel wound and is seeking the therapeutic services of certain specialist prostitutes in Las Vegas. Actually, all three are wounded in some way or another, and I’m not being metaphorical, although it’s possible the writers were.

This being a road movie, the primary entertainment is in watching our heroes encounter the better and worse sort of locals, and this film doesn’t disappoint. From a bar fight provoked by vacuous, bitchy college girls to a great cameo by John Heard as a cocktail party blowhard, from the traditional running-away-while-zipping-up-one’s-pants fiasco to a totally gratuitous tornado, this movie doesn’t disappoint. It’s not as flat-out wacky as National Lampoon’s Vacation, of course, but — here’s the interesting thing — it manages to explore exactly the same issues around the Iraq War and the cost that soldiers are shouldering as Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss, with about a tenth as much melodrama.

Stop-Loss tries to address the admittedly serious problems of post-traumatic stress, suicidal depression, changes in relationships after long deployments, and the increase in risk that goes with multiple deployments. But it also casts returning American soldiers as out-of-control hoodlums, violent alcoholic semi-people endowed with neither humor nor common sense. The Lucky Ones, on the other hand, manages to make all the same points while both respecting its characters and allowing them to be funny.

A lot of the humor is fish-out-of-water stuff; the soldiers are Americans, but their experiences have made them aliens in Middle America, at once honored guests and troubling outsiders. All along the way, people go out of their way to thank the soldiers and give them things: a rental car reserved for someone else, a place to sleep, a ride, the services of a group of campsite hookers. But anytime anyone engages the soldiers in conversation, trouble ensues. Sometimes, as noted above, it results in an out-and-out fight, but far more often it simply results in embarrassing silence or awkwardness. The Hummer salesman who helps the trio when they’re locked out of their car is entirely well-meaning as he prattles away about his customers who ask for desert camouflage on their H1s, but the fact is that even though he understands the irony involved, he doesn’t quite feel the insult in even bringing it up.

This is exactly right. Americans, from what I can tell, are hardly indifferent to the sacrifices that their soldiers make. But they are detached from them. There’s simply no getting around the fact that there’s a small class of Americans taking the brunt of the immediate, human cost of this war. As the nation has not been called to share the burden, as it was in World War II, and as there is not nearly as much actual press coverage of the day-to-day details as there was during Vietnam, and as there is no draft to distribute the risks equally, as there was in every major war of the twentieth century, most Americans are simply not directly connected to the struggle in which we are engaged. And because the Iraq campaign is now acknowledged in most quarters to have been a war of choice, waged for dubious academic nation-building purposes, rather than a war of necessity, the people cannot even share in the moral urgency of the fight. And so this alienation is exactly what you get.

The other thing The Lucky Ones does much better than Stop-Loss is to make clear the economic incentives that drive many people to re-up or to join in the first place. Cheever, who thought he was heading for a new life of freedom, returns to his home in St. Louis to discover his wife wants a divorce, his job no longer exists, and his son needs $20,000 for college. This is the reality of military life — not Stop-Loss‘s outrageous back-door draft, but simple economics. Those who are unable to find meaningful or gainful employment in the private sector — those who, in TK’s phrase, “don’t have any skills” — are the ones who end up fighting. (For a while, it looks like the whole economic subplot is going to be resolved by a lucky plot turn involving Colee’s guitar, but ultimately, it’s not — a head-fake, and annoying, but better than actually going through with it.)

The film is also full of unexpectedly generous twists — Cheever’s ridiculous wartime injury and his cheerful attitude about it, heartland Christians who actually turn out to be mild, kind, and not at all smarmy, a couple of gentle, sincere sheriff’s deputies. It’s not a perfect film by any means — for one thing, the whole plot rests on a misunderstanding of how soldiers exit and return to the war zone — but by simply being an understated comedy and road movie, it’s the first film I’ve seen about American soldiers in this war that actually does them justice.

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