I have to establish that this is not a film about the Iraq War. I know that films about the Iraq War, or even ones that have touched upon it have not done well in the box office.
This film merely deals with characters; three soldiers who have been there, though that may be enough to sink this movie. Considering the lack of advertising, disregard from and lack of exhibitors, this film will certainly not be in the top five. A shame because it's worth your ticket!
Oscar-winner Tim Robbins plays Sgt. Fred Cheever, an army reservist who's just spent a two-year tour in Iraq who's returning home and also retiring from the military. Cheever is eager to get back to his wife from whom he's been estranged his whole two-year tour, as well as his teenage son who's about to go to college.
Cheever's life isn't what he thinks it is. Upon his return, he is made aware of some serious changes. Those changes are exposed when Cheever's flight to St. Louis is cancelled and he decides to drive there with two others soldiers, also coming home from Iraq but both only on a 30-day leave of absence.
One is named Colee Dunn, a scrappy female soldier played by Rachel McAdams (The Notebook and Wedding Crashers). Dunn is on her way to Las Vegas to meet the parents of her boyfriend, a fellow soldier who lost his life in Iraq, saving Dunn's life. Dunn carries his last possession, a guitar that's worth quite a bit of money. She wants to deliver the guitar to his family.
The other soldier is Sgt. T.K. Poole, played with quiet strength by Michael Pena (Crash and World Trade Center). Poole is returning home to visit his fiancee. He's going to Las Vegas too, but not because that's where his fiancée is. Poole is going there to find himself a prostitute, but believe it or not, it's not to cheat on his fiancée but to help her.
How is he going to accomplish that? That's one of the quiet struggles that Poole has to handle. A couple of years ago, there was another film about a few soldiers who come home from Iraq called Home of the Brave (2006), which also dealt with the quiet struggles of returning soldiers. This spring's Stop Loss also echoed some of the same themes.
Yet, this isn't about how the war is going, or whether it's good or bad. Whatever politics this film evokes is quickly swept aside in favor of a sweet human-connection story nicely directed by Neil Burger.
Burger takes the standard indie road trip formula and really allows his actors to do their things and make us care about them. You really are on the edge of your seat when it comes time for the three of them to make a choice about how they want their lives to play out.
The film is engaging. It's funny and interesting, even while trapped inside a mini-van. Their stops along the way bring out some very entertaining moments. Some are a little over-the-top and some a little too melodramatic. One or two characters cried a little too much, but, as a whole, I appreciated it.
Robbins was his usual subdued self. McAdams was a breath of fresh air, but the true good performance comes from Pena. He does a good job of portraying that quiet struggle. He doesn't want to speak about his problems. He wants to deal with it silently. He wants to solve his issue in a roundabout way that still has him coming out looking like a man, not vulnerable or sensitive in any way. At the end, I really felt for him, his dilemma.
All three of these characters face dilemmas. It's only fitting that the film should reach its climax in Las Vegas. All have played the odds. All of them are lucky in various ways in that all three came back in one piece. Cheever says at one point about being over there, "We're just trying to stay alive."
The film makes you possibly think how much of our lives is determined by luck or determined by choice.
Four Stars out of Five
Rated R for language and some sexual content
Running Time: 1 hr. and 55 mins.