Death gotta be easy, ‘cause life is hard.
It’ll leave you physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred.
—50 Cent, “Many Men”
“I’m going home,” exults Jamal (50 Cent). He’s briefly happy, playing football with his fellow National Guardsmen in Iraq. They’re all going home, just notified that in two short weeks, their repeatedly extended tours are done. Jordan (Chad Michael Murray) is going to buy a house and fix it up. Jamal just knows Keisha’s going to be happy to see him (he imagines her “sittin’ on daddy’s lap, playin’ with the anaconda”). This is a unit headed back from Iraq, if only they can survive one more mission.
With that, you pretty much know what’s about to happen in Home of the Brave, Irwin Winkler’s utterly sincere and poorly executed look at veterans’ troubles readjusting to the World. In particular, these troubles are born of inattention, underfunding, and general ignorance, as loved ones and strangers, as well as institutions supposedly designed to “help” all fail to comprehend the extent of the traumas suffered by their soldiers. On one level, such lack of comprehension is typical: war is indescribable to those who haven’t experienced it, though artists persist in describing it, war after war. On another level, however—and Home makes this point repeatedly—this particular war is producing special tangles of problems, beginning with the fact that the administration can’t admit how badly it’s going.
In this context, Home, for all its cumbersome sincerity and script, is an “important” movie. Like the much-trumpeted, short-lived TV series Over There, it means to make visible the dreadful difficulties, to take seriously the situations of U.S. troops and their families (though not Iraqis, as that would be another movie). As these difficulties are often brought on by broken systems at home, the film’s title is especially resonant (if unfortunate, as more than a few movies share it, including Mark Robson’s look at racism during WWII, released in 1949). The focus on the Guard unit is also potentially provocative, given the war’s specific demands on such groups, their affiliations with home states, and their indeterminate status, both in country and at home.
The problems at home are set up in Iraq (the film was shot in Morocco). Images of furtive “insurgents” planting IEDs under “Middle Eastern”-sounding music lead to the unit’s last mission, a supply run in Al Hayy. This harrowing sequence features snap-pans, bloody limbs, and fast-cuts, vehicles trapped in streets, snipers sniping and bombs exploding. The clichés come hard, competing with images you recognize from news footage and stories. The film provides a too-neat array of traumas. Jamal is haunted by his own act of violence, Tommy (Brian Presley) by the death of a best friend (this scene complete with soaring camera and exquisite agonizing), and the medic Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) has just seen too much and felt too helpless.
All return to Spokane, Washington, where their lives are variously undone. When Will’s wife Penelope (Victoria Rowell) finds him watching football on TV late at night, she’s worried. “What happened over there?” she asks, only to be accused of not really wanting to know. “You don’t want to get your hands dirty with the details,” he says, setting the distance between them as impassable. “Maybe I don’t want to know what happened to the rest of them,” she says, earnestly, “But I do want to know what happened to you.” This is exactly the problem, according to the movie. For one thing, Will’s specific experience as a medic all about “what happened to them,” and for another, all the many individual ordeals are lumped into categories (PTSD, prosthetics, rehab, sleep disorders, etc.) and more often than not, end up being similarly unspeakable.
A solid patriot who resents his son Billy’s (Sam Jones III) anti-war acting out, Will takes to self-medicating by alcohol (the film includes a sequence where Will defends his son’s right to wear a “Buck Fush” t-shirt to his principal, then chews him out once they’re outside the white guy’s office). Feeling compelled to play the wiser, older father figure when facing young veterans, he limits contact with them and everyone else, returning to his work at the hospital, avoiding going home at night.
When, one day, he’s visited by convoy driver Vanessa (Jessica Biel), whom he treated in Iraq and who lost her hand during the ambush in Al Hayy, he’s at a loss. They chat, he admires her prosthetic and invites her back another time. Seeking conversation with other veterans, Vanessa is increasingly distanced from her family and her coworkers (she’s a high school track coach, now unable to pick up a ball that rolls on the track, and a single mom who can’t dress her young son. (When a technician at the VA offers Vanessa a brochure on “recreational products,” that is, prosthetics with fishing attachments she and her “boyfriend or husband can do together,” she responds with appropriate revulsion, realizing that for all the horrors she suffered in the war, at least there she was not defined as someone’s “girlfriend or wife.”)
Though Home of the Brave righteously raises this and other homecoming problems (most often, with sledgehammer-style tact, as when Tommy’s coveralled, mechanic dad calls him a “pussy” for acting all sad about his wartime experience), it also lapses into the blandest of resolutions. Among these, the sensitive new romantic partner may be the most egregious, though at least that’s a happy lapse. Jamal is granted the most painfully stereotypical circumstance, as if screenwriter Mark Friedman watched a few too many hood movies (maybe even Get Rich or Die Tryin’). Rejected by Keisha and frustrated by the repetitive complaints he hears in group therapy, Jamal devises a way to get her attention and reassert his manhood. Unable to get a straight answer as to medication for his disability, Jamal explodes: “Somebody better tell me something in this motherfucker!”
Of course, no one can tell him anything, except that they’re sorry he’s feeling so bad and the paperwork is in process. More troublingly, the film gives Jamal no contexts, as it provides his fellow vets, no family or friends, not even a house where he lives. Instead, he appears angry and alone, skulking in his car outside Keisha’s workplace, or shifting unhappily in his chair at the VA. He’s a peculiar figure, part fantastic and part fearsome, a gangster trained and used up by the military (“I like my gun,” he says tearfully during one crisis), then left without any recourse. Offering no clue as to where else he might have come from, Home uses Jamal to portray war as an institution, a calamity-making machine. But this only makes him look used up, twice.