An earnest and involving tribute to two generations of U.S. military personnel, “Memorial Day” will work best in ancillary platforms where the stateliness of its pacing can be alleviated by judicious pressings of the pause button, or the occasional break for commercials. Pic is set for a handful of theatrical dates — during, appropriately enough, the Memorial Day holiday weekend — before a May 29 homevideo release.
Structured by scripter Marc Conklin more or less as a series of time-tripping flashbacks, the indie drama smoothly zigzags among three different periods. While recovering from wounds in a military hospital circa 2005, Sgt. Kyle Vogel (Jonathan Bennett) recalls a fateful Memorial Day in 1993, when his gruff but loving grandfather (James Cromwell) spent a long afternoon reluctantly regaling young Kyle (Jackson Bond) with stories of his WWII service. The most traumatic of these experiences are dramatized with John Cromwell (James’ son) appearing as Lt. Bud Vogel, as natural-born leader who struggles, with mixed success, to protect his men, and remain true to his moral code, even in the heat of combat.
Periodically, the narrative hops back to the Iraq War period, as the hospitalized Sgt. Vogel does his own bit of self-unburdening while telling a sympathetic doctor (Emily Fradenburgh) about his grandfather, the old man’s war stories, and the sergeant’s own bloody experiences in a war where the enemy arguably is more difficult to identify and fight.
Director Sam Fischer deserves credit for keeping the storyline clear and the timeframes untangled, and for devising aptly different visual styles to differentiate between the cleanly staged action of the WWII battle scenes and the more frenetic and confusing Iraq War episodes. Whether deliberately or otherwise, Fischer and lenser Bo Hakala give a WWII encounter in 1944 Belgium a wintery look that vividly evokes William A. Wellman’s 1949 classic “Battleground.”
Performances range from adequate to inspired, with James Cromwell claiming the pic’s top acting honors as the aged Bud Vogel, an upright fellow who’s given to forgetfulness in his dotage — but who dredges up painful recollections, apparently through sheer force of will, to preserve the memories of comrades he lost and, perhaps more important, inspire his attentive grandson.
“Memorial Day” builds to what seems like a satisfying emotional climax a good 20 minutes before it actually ends, which has the rather unfortunate effect of making everything that follows feel slightly anticlimactic. On other hand, the pic introduces some provocative ambiguity in its final section by hinting that Sgt. Vogel may forever harbor at least some regret for taking his grandfather’s lessons to heart.
To its credit, the pic displays equal respect to both WWII and Iraq War vets. Still, some auds may question the conspicuous absence of any reference to military service by Kyle’s largely unseen father, who presumably would have been of age to serve in Vietnam.
Despite some occasionally clunky dialogue, “Memorial Day” registers as a solidly crafted indie drama that might become an annual staple on a cable TV network or two. Production values are sharp, while various Minnesota locales double for European and Iraq settings with an impressive degree of persuasiveness.