This movie did not get the same high profile and widespread coverage in early 2007 as Lions for Lambs did in late 2007, but this story accomplishes what the latter couldn't and succeeds in a cinematic and narrative way where the other didn't.
While this film is about the war in Iraq, whereas the Tom Cruise vehicle was about the war in Afghanistan, it doesn't matter. Both films at their core are about the thoughts and opinions of people in our country with regard to both those wars.
Lions for Lambs focuses solely on the intellectual debate by people detached from the wars, a reporter talking to a politician and a college professor talking to a student. This new film doesn't make that mistake. It centers on the aftermath of four soldiers who aren't detached but who have been there and seen the bullets and the blood.
Partially inspired by the Battle of Najaf, fought in August of 2004, the film opens with a highly involving gunfight between Marines on the streets of Iraq and some insurgents. The wreckage of which follows four of those Marines back to their homes in Spokane, Wash.
Samuel L. Jackson stars as Will Marsh, a medical doctor serving on the front lines who returns to work at a private practice and as a consultant for the military. He has a nice home, a gorgeous wife, played by Victoria Rowell (The Young and the Restless), and kids, but Marsh harbors issues from what he saw and experienced, and while he along with the other soldiers resist feeling weak and vulnerable, Marsh suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which manifests itself in a type of alcoholism and insomnia.
Jessica Biel (7th Heaven) plays Vanessa Price, a teacher who becomes a single mother by choice after becoming injured in Iraq and not wanting any one of her family and friends to help her. Price loses her arm in a car bombing but she refuses help. She wants to be independent. She wants to dress, work, shop, and even raise her son all by herself, as if that will prove something.
Brian Presley (Port Charles) plays Tommy Yates, a young guy who ironically bears a close resemblance in look and sound to Tom Cruise. Yates witnesses his best friend die in the gunfight. However, when he returns, he has to put that aside, as he becomes burdened with helping other soldiers with their injuries, transforming into as much a listener than anything else. At the same time, Yates is a lonely guy, who can't be listened to, relate, or fit.
Yates feels alienated, as do Price and Marsh. The experiences over there were so unique to all of them that it becomes difficult for them to re-adjust to civilian life or in effect to come down from the state of mind to which they were conditioned in that war zone. The film emphasizes the emotional effects and psychological problems that returning soldiers face. It echoes the Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).
I thought this before listening to the DVD's audio commentaries where the screenwriter Marc Friedman admitted to being inspired and referencing that William Wyler feature. Producer and director Irwin Winkler (Life as a House and De-Lovely) also draws comparisons to Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).
This film, though well-acted and paced, is at times a bit too melodramatic and weepy. However, there are elements of this piece that reminded me of Crash (2005), in that the melodrama and interweaving storyline-structure become quite cathartic. The devastation that these soldiers have gone through, despite the machismo that even women soldiers feel, needs to be cried out, and you eventually come to understand that.
Granted this movie isn't as good as William Wyler's masterpiece, or even Oliver Stone's study of the Vietnam aftermath, nevertheless, it proves to be an accurate portrait that really resonates honestly in the whole, thanks to good acting performances, specifically from Samuel L. Jackson.
In fact, Jackson shines in several scenes, especially in those where his character Will Marsh has confrontations with his son Billy, played by Sam Jones III (Smallville). Billy is a very angry, rebellious kid who is staunchly against the Iraq war and who staunchly hates the President, whereas Marsh is absolutely patriotic and absolutely in support of the war. Their intense, interpersonal battles are what Lions for Lambs strived for, but never achieved because it was too intellectual.
The writer and producer, despite having many objections from the U.S. military, do support all of their scenes and all their characters with real people and real stories, pulled from newspapers and magazines. A lot of which don't necessarily paint a flattering picture of the war, but don't be confused. This is not a film condemning the current war in Iraq, nor is it a political film that leans either way.
The film merely is about men and women dealing with the ramifications of it. It's a very touching drama that humanizes the soldiers fighting and coming home from it that may depress those who watch but hopefully, and more importantly, build understanding for those men and women who serve us.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for bloody violence and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.