Here’s a movie that repeatedly, through intermittent jarringly bad writing, fails to live up to its potential.

It’s a powerful story: young Marine (Sam) with two young daughters redeploys to Afghanistan shortly after his brother (Tommy) is released from prison. Shortly after (?) deployment, Sam is shot down in a helicopter, and presumed dead (although no body is found, nor dogtags, so this is an early weakness in the plot). Wife (Grace) and daughters mourn, somewhat messed-up brother steps up. He visits/plays with/entertains his nieces, fixes up his sister-in-law’s kitchen with the help of some bumbling contractor friends of his, apologizes to the victim of the crime that put him in jail in the first place.

As can maybe be expected, the brother (well-played by Jake Gyllenhall) and sister-in-law (adequately played by Natalie Portman) grow closer, to the point of a very poignant moment where they (only) kiss once. They decide immediately that they mean too much to each other as family to allow anything else to happen.

Meanwhile, Sam, a Marine commander of an intermediate rank, portrayed unevenly by Toby Maguire, has been taken prisoner along with the only other survivor of the helicopter crash, a less Marine-like private. They are kept captive for months, and routinely tortured, as their captors try to a) extract information and b) coerce them into confessing on video that they (that is, the American military) have no business being in Afghanistan. Victim to the stress of the general situation and a particularly frightening dénouement, Sam commits an unspeakable act, but is eventually found and returns home, where he has to try to deal with society as he no longer knows it and wrestle with the fear that his wife has betrayed him with his brother.

First, Toby Maguire as a Marine seems to be desperately miscast. I understand that physical and emotional rigidity might be desirable in this case, but in the character rather than the acting.  It’s also hard to get past that, until the very end of the movie (where he somewhat effectively plays a desperately troubled man), he looks and sounds like a 15-year old with a bad haircut and adenoids. There is no true exploration of his relationship with his wife, his daughters, his brother, before he leaves for Afghanistan, no emotional context except maybe for the clichéd “Why can’t you (Tommy) be more like your brother (Sam)?” military father. Because of this lack of context, of empathy for the characters, trying to become invested in the story that follows is made that much more difficult.

There are also many (many many) places which seem to have suffered from the equivalent of 9th-grade writing and/or poorly considered editor’s cuts. I got the feeling on numerous occasions that someone had arbitrarily decided the movie absolute MUST come in under 1:50, so many key conversations were reduced to pithy single lines which failed to communicate or to convince.


Daughter #1, being tucked into bed after dad has suffered from a violent outburst, confessing that she liked it better when Daddy was “dead” and wishes Uncle Tommy could be her Daddy instead: “Will Daddy be okay?” Mom: “Of course.” Daughter: “Thanks, Mommy.”  Well, that was easy.

Sam calling his brother from prison after a violent and frightening altercation: “You’re my brother.” Tommy nods. Ooooooookay. . .

Closing scene, Sam finally confesses to wife the atrocity he committed, in a single sentence: subject-verb-object. Wife nods, embraces husband, the camera pans away. No horror? No explanation? I guess it’s believable that she had an idea (there’s an earlier scene in which this is a possibility), but there’s no drama, no emotion. Realism and believability sacrificed for a stylized minimalism that just doesn’t work.

Another problem is a lack of chronological context. We don’t really know how much time has passed from deployment to capture; from capture to crisis; from crisis to return. We don’t know how long he’s home before it all starts to fall apart. This could, and should, have been done much more clearly.

It’s interesting that The Hurt Locker seemed to communicate all of the angst and drama so much more effectively in such a drily devastating way, including the soldier’s inability to return home and fit back into his family life.

This movie hinted at a valid and powerful exploration of the difficulty of life for a member of the military: go to boot camp, be conditioned to be courageous and strong and capable of dealing out death; return home, without any kind of reverse conditioning, be open and communicative, understanding and kind.

The failure to live up to this potential makes it even more disappointing.

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