Recently I saw the preview for the latest Zach Efron vehicle, The Lucky One. Admittedly, I am not in that film’s target audience, but there was something about the preview that irked me beyond my sometimes irrational dislike for Nicholas Sparks adaptations (I remembered laughing out loud during the Nights in Rodantha trailer when Diane Lane ran next to a bunch of wild horses on a beach, and being angrily shushed by a woman behind me). For those of you who have not seen the trailer, which seems to pretty much lay out the plot of the film beat by beat, Zach Efron is a soldier in Iraq who finds a picture of Taylor Schilling on the ground shortly before his squad is attacked. When he returns home from the war he finds the woman in the picture to thank her for “saving his life” but can’t figure out how to tell her and instead becomes her coworker (!?!) on her family farm with her persnickety mother (played by Blythe Danner) and a Jonathan Lipnickiesque son played by the next kid who will be in a million things until he hits puberty. The two predictably fall in love, and then his secret comes out, which causes her to think he’s a big creep, and so he has to win her back. Which he probably will. If I were a betting man, I would bet on them staying together. I like those odds.
Here’s my problem: when did it become okay to make this sort of movie about an Iraq War veteran? I think it really says something about the distance the American people have had from the two concurrent wars that this was even considered as a good idea. The problem is not that this is a pro-war movie or anti-war movie. It seems to consider the war as no more than a shorthand for character development. Why is Zach Efron earnest and tightlipped about his past? He was in the war. We’ve all seen war movies, we should understand that. But the war movies we have seen that have this attitude are World War II movies, movies that have been, as a rule, given a shimmering gleam of nostalgia. There was a recent article in The New Yorker about how each generation of film producers give their youth a yearning look back. This shouldn’t suggest that it’s a good idea to change history to make people seem more heroic than they really were, but the tradition is to look back in order to do it. Indeed, the entire plot device recalls another Nicholas Sparks adaptation—The Notebook—in which there is a brief combat interlude, an insulting scene in which a character has some canned dialogue before expiring, and then Ryan Gosling returns with the scars of war. And how did that character display his inner torment? Apparently by growing a beard. But we’re looking back at World War II, and since filmmakers have been making World War II romantic since Casablanca, okay, it’s hard to fault it.
The Lucky One
Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, Jay R. Ferguson, Blythe Danner
(Village Roadshow Pictures; 2012)
To put it another way, could The Lucky One have been made in 1975 about Vietnam? It doesn’t seem like it would be very difficult to move the story. But something about placing The Lucky One’s scenario in the post-Vietnam era would seem icky, right? During the Vietnam War we as a nation were able to see the effects of the war on soldiers returning home, and a movie that would trivialize those effects would not be acceptable. And it is not as if this war has not caused significant trauma to soldiers. In Afghanistan there have been two very recent incidents that have shown how the difficult reality of war has affected our soldiers. The first was an incident where soldiers were videoed urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. The second, and much more serious incident, was the early March episode involving a soldier opening fire on civilians, killing 16.
If you think about war movies over the last few decades, the “war is hell” motif has been dominant. Movies like Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon redefined how Americans viewed the damaging aspects that warfare has on a modern psyche. What is interesting is the near across the board commercial failure of almost every movie that dealt with the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts. Just off the top of my head: Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Ellah, Redacted, The Hurt Locker, Lions for Lambs, Green Zone, and Rendition. Maybe those movies were made and audiences were just not ready to see a movie about the war as it was happening.
As I made that list, I have to say I have only seen about half of them, and I didn’t see any in the theater. Also, it is not as if those movies were going for the same demographic as The Lucky One, but in a way that makes the war footage shown in the trailer even more cynical. It suggests that women seeing the trailer can tell potentially sluggish male counterparts that they might like The Lucky One because it is a “war movie” (This reminds me of a great Onion article from 2000 entitled “Area Girlfriend Still Hasn’t Seen Apocalypse Now”). This is almost as incomprehensible as a James Bond movie being pushed on a female audience over the enticing prospect of a “love” story. The marketing seems so poorly calculated it is almost insulting.
This is not to say that war is not an appropriate venue for a love story. However, when attempting something in that genre, it is best to be careful and respectful of the characters and their situations. One movie that is able to play that difficult high-wire act is the Vietnam era film Coming Home, by director Hal Ashby. The film dealt with a woman (Jane Fonda) who is married to a career soldier (Bruce Dern) who is deployed to Vietnam. While Dern is away, Fonda becomes close to another soldier (Jon Voight) who, due to a combat injury is now confined to a wheelchair. The two become romantically involved, but Voight, due to the nature of his wounds has become impotent. The two have a love that is genuine, but the war has left them incomplete. When Bruce Dern returns, he is physically sound, but it soon becomes clear that he is suffering from his wartime experiences all the same.
Depressed yet? What about Forrest Gump? That film, while not a traditional Vietnam film, does contain long stretches of narrative that deal with the lasting effects of the war. It also has a strong love story, and the two narratives do intermingle. Again, what saves this film from being tacky is the perspective. Forrest is changed by his experiences in the war. When he sees Jenny, it is as a changed person. Prior to the war it was easy to see Jenny as a more worldly person than Forrest. Afterwards, she just seemed lost.
Commercially, I understand how a film like The Lucky One could get made. It hits all the right notes of a successful—if ill-advised—romance. And I may be all wrong. I have not seen the film. It could be as thoughtful a look at a soldier returning home as a film like Stop-Loss or In the Valley of Ellah, but marketed to look like G.I. Jerry Maguire. But I’m pretty sure I’m right. And I’m pretty sure I’m disgusted.