Wednesday, December 23, 2009
The Messenger/The Damned United
Oren Moverman's The Messenger has a restlessness and a anarchic spirit that most other films related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have lacked; in fact, it's closer in feel to a 1970's-made drama or an independent film from the 1990's than to a Big Message picture like In The Valley of Elah. The success of The Messenger is mostly due to the performance of Ben Foster as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery, back from Iraq and being hailed as a "hero" for saving some of his men during a firefight. Foster is an actor I've never really paid much attention to (except maybe on Six Feet Under), but he announces his presence as a leading man here with understated work full of a barely sublimated confusion. Montgomery, who doesn't consider himself a hero, is assigned to spend the last few months of his enlistment on a Casualty Notification Detail with the weathered Captain Stone (Woody Harrelson, Golden Globe and Spirit Award nominee). Stone is a recovering alcoholic and a stickler for procedure, but there's a side to him that obviously needs Montgomery's company and Harrelson gets to play some great, angry variations on his natural folksiness. Is this the role that announces Harrelson as a major character actor?
The scenes where Montgomery and Stone inform family memebers that their sons and daughters have been killed in combat are naturally wrenching though filmed with more interest on how the two soldiers struggle to remain rooted in their assigned roles. As the job begins to wear on the two men they react in different ways, as Montgomery is drawn to a widow (Samantha Morton) he meets while making a notification and Stone begins to drink again. While the relationship between Montgomery and Morton's character is a touch underbaked the point isn't what happens so much as what doesn't. Not trying to solve the problem of what's going to happen to Stone and Montgomery stateside is the best decision Moverman could have made. The Messenger doesn't impose a solution for the crises our returning soldiers are facing, and that makes it one of the best films of the year.
I'm pretty sure The Damned United will never be remade in the U.S. unless it's discovered that Bill Belichick was entirely dependent on Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel. In 1974, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) becomes manager of soccer powerhouse Leeds United after turning a smaller club into a champion. Clough's assistant Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall) doesn't come along and Leeds has their worst start in years. Peter Morgan's script doesn't shy away from depicting Clough as a super-ambitious heel and is clear that Taylor was the real talent. Sheen's rollicking performance carries the day, and the film is the better for depicting sport as just as much a ground for human folly as is the rest of life.