Generals are always fighting the last war, and war movies tend to do the same thing. Home of the Brave, in which several soldiers who fought in Iraq try to adjust to civilian life, seems haunted by Vietnam (okay, two wars back) - the profound disillusionment, stemming in part from defeat, that seeped into such movies as Deer Hunter and Coming Home. But it's never quite clear where the disillusionment is coming from, since none of the soldiers is opposed to the war. Perhaps director Irwin Winkler and his co-scriptwriter, Mark Friedman, just wanted to show us how hard it is for anyone to fight in any war without sustaining some kind of casualty. Then why did they set their movie in a very particular war that has divided a nation and still shows no real signs of ending? Home of the Brave doesn't exactly avoid politics like the plague, but it definitely keeps them at arm's length.
The movie opens with one of those touch football games that seem like prep for battle, but we're told that these soldiers have no reason to gird their loins. They're heading home. Even their final mission is a routine humanitarian-aid run - medical supplies to a town called Al Hayy. But things don't work out that way. And the resulting ambush/firefight is, if not quite as intense as we've come to expect, then certainly as intense as need be. Suddenly, characters we've barely gotten to know are being shipped back to the States, one of them in a body bag. And Home of the Brave, which follows four of them to their home town of Spokane, Wash., suddenly turns into The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler's Oscar-laden account of the period of adjustment required by veterans of World War II.
Earnest as a Boy Scout, The Best Years of Our Lives was like a slap in the face to a country that was desperate to put the war behind it. And perhaps Winkler and Friedman are trying to do something similar - let us know that, however we might feel about the war, attention must be paid. (How many war veterans have you hugged today?) Unfortunately, one way Winkler's gone about it is by hiring celebrities to play GI Joes and Janes. Samuel L. Jackson, having finally gotten all those snakes off that plane, plays a M.A.S.H.-type surgeon who apparently can't stand the sight of blood. Jessica Biel plays a high school phys-ed teacher who loses her jump-shot hand. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson plays one of those guys who wind up taking hostages at a fast-food outlet. And Brian Presley, who, though not a celebrity, is a dead ringer for Ben Stiller doing Tom Cruise, plays one of those guys who wind up reenlisting.
Surely every war veteran has his or her own unique story to tell, but the ones in Home of the Brave seem a little too tried-and-true. Jackson's character takes to the bottle, meanwhile getting in major arguments with his teenage son, who has to carry the banner for the millions upon millions of Americans who are opposed to this war. Biel, retracing the story arc first laid down by Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives, pushes people away, determined to fend for herself. And 50 Cent, who must have studied at the Marlon Brando School of Mumbling, just gets angrier and angrier. Of them all, only Presley seems out of the ordinary - a soldier who only feels truly comfortable on the battlefield. Nevertheless, the script sends him a hilariously absurd plot point: The gun shop where he worked before he went to Iraq now no longer has a spot for him.
Somebody call the NRA!
There are other things that make you say "hmm" - Biel's smooth glide through Walter Reed Hospital, for example. Winkler and Friedman seem determined to avoid controversy or anything else that might endanger the movie's chances of playing in both red and blue states. "It's a pro-soldier and a pro-family movie," Winkler recently told Salon. And so it is, but is that really enough to build a whole movie around? The war in Iraq, not to mention the war at home, has been so thoroughly covered by television and movie documentaries that it seems entirely reasonable to expect a feature-length film to dig a little deeper. But this is the first one that's come our way, and it'll just have to do for now. Yes, it pounds on our heartstrings instead of plucking them. But at least we're being reminded that what might have been the best years of our lives aren't.