Home of the Brave: The Psychic Toll of the Iraq War

Violence is most profound when it is most subtle -- that is, when it creeps in quietly and unexpectedly. So it's not the spectacle of war in the opening sequence of Home of the Brave that is most disturbing. It's the violence that erupts when these same soldiers must try and readjust to ordinary life at home.

Returning home from war should be a joyous occasion. Indeed, when the National Guard soldiers in Irwin Winkler's Home of the Brave get wind that they are going home, they are exultant. The men, played by Samuel L. Jackson (Will Marsh), Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson (Jamal Aiken), and Brian Presley (Tommy Yates), alternately play touch football, joke about their future sexual exploits, and express sheer relief. Jessica Biel (Vanessa Price), the token woman in the movie, cannot wait to go home to see her son.

But not so fast. They have one last mission that will irrevocably change their lives. And it's this one mission that will haunt them upon their return home and unravel their most intimate relationships.

Even though these stories are relatively underreported, Home of the Brave has a ripped-straight-from-the-headlines feel to it, which begs to be held up to the rigors of the documentary. The screenplay, by Mark Friedman, was based on interviews with veterans. Even the actors did their homework by talking to Iraq veterans who may have been the basis for their characters.

But war is far messier than this film suggests. The last battle before their return home, for instance, becomes the defining moment of the war for these characters. While this may be useful for a movie script, it would have been more realistic to dramatize a series of haunting incidents, rather than encapsulating all of their traumatic memories into one pivotal event.

Home of the Brave is a decent and compassionate attempt to capture the psychic toll of war, and Winkler underscores this message at the end with a Machiavelli quote we might not expect from Karl Rove's hero: "Wars begin where you will, but they do not end where you please," wrote the author of The Prince.

But that is about as political as this movie gets. This movie honors the soldiers without disillusioning them -- even though a recent Zogby poll found that many soldiers are actually against the war. And the script does not dare to upset a big box-office paycheck by alienating Bill O'Reilly fans. At one point in the film, Marsh's son wears a "Buck Fush" T-shirt to school, and Marsh and his wife are summoned to the principal's office. At school, Marsh defends his son's right to freedom of expression.

Yet as he and his son walk back to the car, Marsh tells him he has no right to criticize a war he hasn't participated in, and therefore knows nothing about. As if to ensure there will be no boycotts of the movie, Marsh later concludes that his son is against the war not merely on principle, but because he's just a typical teenage boy rebelling against his father, and a war his father happened to be in.

Depoliticizing a deeply political topic is nothing new for a mainstream Hollywood film. But political aversion at this moment in time is practically spineless. It would not be considered remotely radical to criticize the Iraq war on political grounds during a time when Bush's approval ratings are so low, and there is a resounding, bipartisan consensus that the war in Iraq is a mess.

But for all of its evident cowardice, the film is nevertheless instructive. When soldiers return home, they have to cope with a whole host of issues: anxiety, depression, possibly Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, trouble sleeping, trouble relating to family and friends. They must also deal with loved ones who are ignorant of their plight betraying the American imperative to compartmentalize emotions. Their situation is also exacerbated by a culture bent on a quick fix. In a telling scene, Yates and Price run into each other at the movie theater and compare the drugs they take -- Celexa, Zoloft, Ambien. Price then quips that they sound like a bunch of junkies.

Despite taking such medication, Price feels humiliated by the loss of her hand. She's having such a hard time readjusting that when she inexplicably estranges her boyfriend, her mother looks at her bewildered with contempt. Marsh turns to alcohol creating a rift in his marriage. Yates cannot seem to get it together to take the police test, which exasperates his father who set it up for him. Aiken gets increasingly aggressive and focuses his frustration on the Department of Veterans Affairs and an ex-girlfriend who refuses to see him.

The violence precipitated by these circumstances is startling, perhaps because many of the soldiers' friends and families are as ignorant as most audience members who, after three years of war, still do not know a single soldier. In a climactic scene in the movie, Aiken's rage becomes unbearable, and the only person who can truly understand that he is not a criminal is Yates. This story -- the most tragic and demoralizing -- is also, sadly, the one most resonant and true to life. There are countless stories of Iraq veterans who wind up in prison or dead because of their inability to cope. But it feels glossed over, as if Winkler and Friedman did not want to linger too long on the thought of an American hero reduced to a menace.

Home of the Brave itself, like the drugs some of these characters take, is a quick fix. It was conceived with the good intention of telling the stories of the men and women who served in Iraq and are now home. But good intentions don't matter much in Hollywood, where a happy ending is de rigueur. Unfortunately for audiences and Winkler, it's precisely this conventionality that's holding the film back. With this tacked-on Hollywood ending, so shamelessly false, the big box-office pay off everyone wants may never come.


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