Irwin Winkler’s attempt to remodel “The Best Years of Our Lives” for the Iraqi war vet, “Home of the Brave” is obvious, plodding, cloying and politically innocuous. But its more immediate problem may be timing: Do auds want to see a dramatic feature about a still-raging war? Do they want to see re-created violence of the type still being created on the streets of Baghdad? Do they want to see actors who look like actors playing Iraq vets, when so many solid documentaries can show them the real thing? And would they, under any circumstances, want to see this movie?
By benefit of technology and timing, the war in Iraq will be the most filmed, video-ed and otherwise recorded military conflict in history, and it isn’t close to being over. While solutions may have been few thus far, there has been no shortage of analysis of the problems of Iraq vets. Nor is it any secret that transitioning back into society is a problem for many who’ve been in combat.
Winkler’s obvious template is William Wyler and Samuel Goldwyn’s 1946 Oscar winner, a film that courageously confronted the previously unaddressed difficulties of soldiers returning to the home front. It remains a moving drama, one that influenced public views about the re-entry trauma of battle vets and informs attitudes even today. So Winkler wasn’t going to break any new ground, even if his film worked.
A major difference between the Wyler and Winkler worlds is that, having grown up in a world lucky enough to have “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the vets in “Home of the Brave” expect so-called “normal life” to adjust to them — which may not be a fair portrayal, but certainly isn’t one likely to win much sympathy for the characters.
They include Will Marsh, a doctor played by Samuel L. Jackson, who returns to Spokane, Wash., to find a son (Sam Jones III) who seems to hate him and a wife (Victoria Rowell) who wants to understand him, but simply can’t get through. Living in the same town are single mom Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel), who lost her right hand to an insurgent IED (shades of Harold Russell in “Best Years”), and Tommy Yates (Brian Presley), who lost his best friend. At no time is one convinced that these aren’t talented actors playing wounded warriors.
There’s an incongruously clean, uncluttered sense to the production and Tony Pierce-Roberts’ cinematography, which belies the mayhem one would expect in Baghdad (the stand-in is a city in Morocco), and there is frequently no narrative justification for Winkler’s lingering shots of the vets and their surroundings, or certainly the slo-mo sequences meant to imply profound feeling. Mark Friedman’s screenplay, pockmarked by cliche, feels reminiscent of too many war romances (the wisecracking during the opening battle is straight out of “Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos”). When something goes wrong and someone screams “Nooooooooo … !” you want to scream right along.
Special mention should probably be given Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent, rapper and now movie star. His performance is not just an exercise in attitude, his dialogue is occasionally incomprehensible. But he’s better than most of the subordinate players, who, it is hoped, are nonactors.
Character development, as it were, takes vicious turns without much warning: In one scene, Jackson’s Marsh deliversa rather moving, if drunken, speech at the dinner table, then rips out his son’s lip ring. If Winkler wanted to make vets seem psychotic, he succeeds, but even the trauma of war can’t make sense of a lot of what goes on here.