Speaking about The Messenger, the film selected to open the tenth annual Woodstock Film Festival, screenwriter-director Oren Moverman said emphatically, “It’s really not a political film at all, and it really isn’t about the Iraq War.” Yet the film’s plot—an unsparing look at the soldiers who return and the families who must go on when they do not return—seems like it could have been ripped from the pages of an Iraq War vet’s diary.
The Messenger, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival, stars Ben Foster (who played outlaw Charlie Prince in 3:10 to Yuma) as Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery, a wounded and angry soldier just back from Iraq. In his remaining days of service, he is assigned the heart-wrenching work of notifying families of soldiers who have been killed in battle, and ordered to do so mechanically by a veteran superior officer, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). When Montgomery falls in love with a new army widow (Samantha Morton), he must confront the morality of his situation, even as he welcomes a sense of intimacy that he thought the war had deadened for good.
While this is his directorial debut, Moverman has written many critically lauded works, including director Todd Haynes’s semiotic meditation on Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, and the junkie epic, Jesus’ Son, directed by Alison Maclean.
Moverman had not planned on helming this project. When he and cowriter Alessandro Camon began work on The Messenger three years ago, the late Sydney Pollack expressed interest in filming it. He planned to focus on what he saw as “a forbidden love” between Montgomery and Olivia Pitterson, the war widow. But Moverman felt the greater story was between the staff sergeant and his captain, so Pollack “moved on, but remained a friend and advisor on the project,” according to Moverman. After two other directors, including Ben Affleck, suggested script revisions but then opted for other projects, Moverman was encouraged by producer Mark Gordon to take the reins. Despite his neophyte status, Foster and Harrelson signed on, as did Steve Buscemi as the father of a soldier killed in battle.
For The Messenger, Moverman drew on the experiences of previous collaborations. “I’ve been lucky to work with directors I get along with and people who include me in the process. I got to experience a lot of the screenwriting process from a director’s perspective. Particularly in [I’m Not There and Jesus’ Son], I was working with the director before there was any hint of a film actually getting made. My job as a screenwriter was always to give a director options, and then, from stepping over the line to becoming a director, I knew what those options could be because I played that game as a screenwriter.”
Moverman brought a unique personal perspective to The Messenger, having served four years as an infantry officer in his native Israel, patrolling territory in Lebanon and in the occupied territories of what is now Palestine during the first Intifada. Plumbing his own memories from two decades ago was unsettling, he said. “I’ve always looked on things as a screenwriter, where I maintained personal distance from the story. But here things got really close to my own experiences. I felt that even though I served in a very different military, I could really understand these guys. I could understand the feeling of coming back from a war zone and what that does to your headspace.”
The action of the film unfurls like a short story: People with problems are presented one by one. Through a series of screenwriter constructions—some organic, others contrived—crises are confronted, catharses emerge, and wounds begin healing. What anchors this film are kinetic performances that jack up conventional characters. Foster starts off as a powder keg poised on detonating, infusing his character with a brooding hurt that transforms his face into that of a little boy betrayed by a father—in this case, his country. Harrelson, a veteran leftie, locates the humanism in playing a crude career military man torn between maintaining the party line and blowing the lid off of the folly he has seen. A number of secondary characters, specifically those playing parents and wives of the war dead, deliver blows to the solar plexus in brief but potent scenes.
There is no mistake as to where Moverman’s sympathies lie: In The Messenger, soldiers have brash, macho veneers but the hurt and dislocation lies just beneath the surface. Everybody has been twisted, curdled, ruined in some fashion by their war experience. In one scene, Montgomery and Strong have crashed the wedding of the staff sergeant’s ex-girlfriend. The nervous groom toasts the soldiers, declaring that whether or not you support the war, you should support its soldiers. (The soldiers roll their eyes in response.) Asked to elaborate on that popular, if illogical slogan, director Moverman said, “It’s society’s responsibility to make sure these people get integrated back into society and can get some care. And not fall by the wayside in the way that happened after Vietnam.”
The Messenger opens the Woodstock Film Festival on Thursday, October 1.