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Critics laud Iraq pics as war hits home

War movies connect on different levels

The year 2009 was the one that saw Iraq War-themed movies finally connect with Academy voters, as Oscar-nominated scripts “The Hurt Locker” and “The Messenger” resonated in ways that earlier efforts didn’t.

The two films feature very different settings: One is a portrait of the front lines, the other of the home front. Yet both are character-driven stories with enigmatic heroes.

“We were trying to portray a character who was in transition in a kind of existential limbo suspended between war and peace,” observes Alessandro Camon, co-writer of “The Messenger” with Oren Moverman.

“The Hurt Locker” writer Mark Boal echoes similar thoughts: “The idea was to have the audience go on a journey where they learn more about Sgt. James as the film unfolds … so part of that is withholding information.”

Both sets of writers took an apolitical approach. “It was designed not to be partisan,” says Boal, “although some right-wingers hate the movie. … There’s nobody I’ve known who’s seen the movie and has said, ‘Gee, Iraq looks like a nice place to have a vacation.’ ”

Says Camon: “We were interested in shining a spotlight on an aspect of the war we don’t see without making a statement, but it could be argued that repositioning the spotlight is a political statement itself.” Moverman adds: “The irony is the U.S. Army supported our film. … They wanted people to be aware of the cost of the war.”

Boal drew on his own experiences as a war correspondent: “I was having drinks with an Army EOD guy and he was telling me a story about an Israeli EOD guy who’d gone down-range to a car full of explosives, and at a certain point had taken off his suit … saying if he was going to die it didn’t make any difference. … That story I heard in a bar (in Jordan) got fictionalized into the script.”

Boal and “The Messenger” writers take different approaches to imagining the characters’ offscreen lives. Camon points to one scene in “The Messenger” in which a woman and her father are notified of her husband’s death: “At one point, we decided the girl was Jewish, and one of the reasons the marriage was kept secret is that she was marrying a Hispanic guy.”

Both films prompt the question, “What happens to the soldiers after the story ends?” Moverman mulls it over: “He’ll stay in touch with the Samantha Morton character. My romantic side wants to believe there’s something in that relationship that will heal him.”

But for “Hurt Locker’s” Boal, there’s no point in looking past the film’s final haunting images: “I like the ambiguity that the film ends on.”

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