Two years ago, films about the War in Iraq were all the rage - almost literally. Somewhere along the long creative line between idea and greenlight, filmmakers and their supporting studios decided to turn our dedicated men and women in uniform into sad psychological freaks, their post-traumatic time in the Middle East a catalyst for everything from self-destruction and mental illness to out and out serial murder. Turning soldiers into villains may work when it’s the Nazis, or the Viet Cong, but few members of the Red, White, and Blue fraternity want to see their armed forces armed and dangerous - outside of a combat zone, that is. You can see the turn in this year’s celebrated The Hurt Locker. There, cockiness and commitment are channeled in ways that result in more suspenseful heroics and less blood-splattering horrors.
It’s the same with a smaller entry from the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, American Son. Starring Nick Cannon as a 19 year old Marine on 96 hours of leave before heading overseas, this is another examination of the war’s effect that’s reflective, not reactive. Instead of turning this small, simple attempt at individual import into a grand, grating political statement, writer Eric Schmid and director Neil Abramson keep things closed and personal - and for the most part, it works. Sure, there are characters that we don’t quite connect with, and the core love story seems pat and poorly defined, but at least we aren’t witnessing another jarhead on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, American Son is one of the few modern takes on the material that never once apologizes for its warrior-in-waiting.
When Mike Holland gets the bad news - his company is shipping out to Iraq almost immediately - he hops a bus and heads back home to Bakersfield. He has 96 hours of R&R before he is deployed and he wants to make the most of it. During the trip, he runs into recent high school graduate Cristina. She is taken by his swagger and his strength. He instantly falls for her innocence and sweetness. Once back in his old neighborhood, Mike realizes that little has changed. His father is still struggling, his Mom working way too hard to care for his sister and new non-committal step-dad. Even worse, his older brother is lost in a world of drugs, a deadly domain that also seems to be sucking in best buddy Jake. As he attempts to connect with Cristina, the upcoming journey into battle hangs over his head. Mike enlisted to challenge himself. He didn’t know the war would be fought both at home and abroad.
American Son is a calm, contemplative movie, an attempt to use little moments and revelations to suggest bigger, more meaningful issues. It’s not out to wave the flag and force feed us jaded patriotic jingoism, nor is it a bleeding heart denouncement of the young people taking up the mantle for an otherwise ungrateful nation. Instead, Mike’s inner journey, his hatred of his home life and the possibility of purity with Cristina take center stage - sometimes, to the film’s detriment. It’s almost as if Schmid and Abramson are afraid of the family and ethnic dynamic at work. Race is never mentioned, even with Tom Sizemore as a deadbeat step-father and Matt O’Leary as a cliché-ridden suburban ‘gansta’. It’s refreshing not to hear the black/white issues rehashed, even if Cristina’s family has their own inferred black/brown one.
But it would have been nice for the film to explore what’s actually going on in Mike’s life, especially since it’s the foundation for why he joined up in the first place. Chi McBride shows up for a few scenes, playing the absentee biological father who no longer seems connected to his kids. When he takes Mike out to look for his doped up older sibling, we sense a wealth of unspoken issues between the two. Yet said history is reduced to a single garage scene set-up with our hero proclaiming “I’m not you” in standard son rebellion mode. Similarly, Mike appeared to be the only kid of color in a group of hard-partying, rap-loving white boys. While it’s obvious the Marines have changed him (“Semper Fi” and all), why he hung out with this bunch of inebriated losers in the first place is almost unfathomable.
Indeed, Mike is so noble, so seemingly centered with his eye on the prize that very little that goes on around him seems to have an effect. Cannon, whose crafty smile appears too casual to be hiding any real angst, gets a couple of emotion breakdowns, but without any conversational follow-up, we’re not sure what he’s worried about. There is a scene with Jay Hernandez as a recently returned vet with a missing leg, but for the most part, the possibility of dying 5000 miles away in some desert Hell hole barely gets a mention. Of course, it’s all part of Abramson’s plan to avoid the epic to focus on the smaller details. But American Son is almost too languid to make this stylistic choice work. We need to feel the film building to something, not just spinning its cinematic wheels as time ticks down.
Then there is the core relationship between Mike and Cristina. It’s hard to see an attraction beyond the physical, and when the two get together, it’s the usual sexual stand-offs and maneuvers. We can understand why she might be willing to jeopardize her future and fall for this boy - he’s confident, polite, and easy going. But beyond the curves and coy innocence, Cristina herself is a cipher. All we really know about her is that she has a strict Hispanic family and that she wants to go to college. That’s not a lot to hang your major plot points on. While Cannon and actress Melonie Diaz have a decent chemistry, the automatic affection is one of the film’s weaker elements. Even with Abramson and his producers on hand for a detailed DVD audio commentary, we get little insight into this couple.
The rest of the digital package is equally oblique. The Making-of material is more behind the scenes shenanigans and struggles than perspective, and the deleted scenes suggest a different, more direct kind of movie. In fact, what one takes away from American Son is a sense of caution. Instead of getting into the sadness and psychological trauma Mike might feel, it’s all about stoicism and inner strength - and in some ways, that’s invigorating. Sure, the movie ends on an ambiguous note, some situations resolved, others left raw and unhealed, but for the most part, Abramson plays it safe. When compared to other Iraq-themed stories of late, that’s a welcome change of pace. For the particular characters and circumstances here, however, a little more complexity would have turned something good into something great.