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Americans who haven’t done time in Iraq don’t really care about the war or its veterans. So say the walking wounded who struggle with their return to civilian life in Home of the Brave. The truth of this thesis might be demonstrated by the fact that director Irwin Winkler’s drama arrived in Washington some five months after its opening in New York, where it received tepid reviews. But perhaps the problem isn’t the message but the messenger. Winkler’s look at the PTSD set is well-meaning but flat; it’s also in competition with daily news coverage and an unprecedented supply of documentaries that observe the conflict from various angles. Anyone who wants a fix of bloody Iraq War actuality needn’t look to this Hollywood vehicle.
Home of the Brave opens in Iraq with a burst of faux-documentary gore. While on a humanitarian mission, a U.S. Army convoy experiences an inevitable ambush. Shot in the quick-cut, hopping-viewpoint style of all contemporary combat movies, the attack leaves many dead and injured. Winkler focuses on four survivors: Vanessa (Jessica Biel) is grazed by a bomb and loses a hand. Tommy (Brian Presley) is shot in his leg but is more pained to watch best friend Jordan (Chad Michael Murray) shot to death. Jamal (Curtis Jackson, aka 50 Cent) hurts his back. And while combat surgeon Will (Samuel L. Jackson) is untouched, his psyche is seared.
Barely 20 minutes into the film, the location shifts to Spokane, Wash., which is sufficiently small that the central characters can occasionally bump into one another without the meetings feeling overly contrived. Will returns to his job and family—which includes a surly teenage son (Sam Jones III)—and reaches for the booze. Vanessa returns to her job as a high school gym teacher, angry and ashamed that her new prosthesis is a poor substitute for a real hand. Tommy comforts Jordan’s widow (Christina Ricci), finds out his old job has been illegally filled, and settles for a gig selling tickets at a multiplex. Jamal vents his rage at everyone and ultimately gets into a police standoff. His is the most dramatic subplot, yet Winkler gives it the least time, perhaps because he couldn’t make 50 Cent be an actor as easily as he could make Biel appear to be an amputee.
Winkler, the Rocky co-producer who turned to directing in the ’90s, strains for naturalism here. He has Ricci play one scene with wet hair, and provides several views of Vanessa’s gnarled stump. Those gambits can’t disguise the didacticism of scripter Mark Friedman’s dialogue, nor can they conceal the fact that Biel—the most glamorous G.I. Jane since Courage Under Fire’s Meg Ryan—and Presley are just too pretty for their roles. Jackson’s Will is more complex, in part because he has the most developed family life; as Will’s wife, Victoria Rowell has a much larger role than Tommy’s ornery dad or Vanessa’s dutiful mom. Yet Jackson never varies his trademark demeanor, even when playing a breakdown scene. It’s just another of those sacrifices that an American civilian can’t bring himself to make for the good of the troops.
The purpose of the Iraq War is not among Winkler and Friedman’s primary concerns, although they do work a bit of politics into the dialogue, mostly in the spats between Will and his son. Home of the Brave means to be hard-boiled, and Winkler is enough of a big-picture guy to end the movie with a Machiavelli quotation warning that wars are easier to start than stop. Before those ominous words, however, the director has found overly easy resolutions for three of his four veterans. Given that the war remains both a mess and a mystery, that proportion seems inappropriately optimistic.