Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Limits of Scripted Stoicism

A day after The Hurt Locker took the Oscar for best picture, I went to see The Messenger, another intense drama in a military setting. One involves bomb disposal in Iraq, the other casualty notification stateside. Neither is afraid of exploring the raw emotions unleashed by war.

The protagonist of The Messenger is a young enlisted soldier (played by Ben Foster) who has received commendations for bravery and also severely wounded in Iraq. He forms a two-man team with an older soldier (played by Woody Harrelson) who seeks to insulate him from the emotional demands of notification duty by instilling a rigid professionalism. Never touch the NOK (next of kin), the older man lectures, lapsing into bureaucratic jargon. The casualty notification officer (CNO) is to mpart the news in person but with scripted stoicism, leaving it to the local CAO (casualty assistance officer) to follow up.

It is scarcely surprising when cracks appear in the casualty notification officers' carefully choreographed ritual. The veteran officer initially claims to be in A.A., but as the film progresses he succumbs to bouts of public drunkeness. The younger soldier eventually confesses to the other about how a drunk driver killed his father - and that his father was that drunk driver. The confession continues in a later scene when the younger, decorated soldier admits to suicidal thoughts while being treated for his war injuries.

Naturally, the fissures in the CNO persona become most vivid when one of them feels genuine sympathy and affection for a woman who must be notified of her husband's death. But introducing this plotline doesn't mean The Messenger is an incipient romantic comedy. It's more like eros and thanatos in a dead heat.

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