The message of “The Messenger” couldn’t be more timely. The 2009 drama was honored with two Oscar nominations for best writing and for Woody Harrelson’s performance as Capt. Tony Stone, a soldier assigned to inform families of our many military deaths. Today, Oscilloscope Laboratories—a relatively new “indie” DVD distribution company—is releasing “The Messenger” for home viewing.
Why is “The Messenger” so timely?
National Public Radio’s John McChesney is among the journalists reporting on the vast and painful legacy of these wars. Here’s a link to one of McChesney’s recent stories, where he reports: Beyond the deaths in our current wars, “The number of outstanding claims at the VA for service-related disabilities—amputations, injured limbs, PTSD, brain trauma—hovers around 500,000. Nearly 40 percent of those have been waiting on a decision for more than four months. And to make matters worse, another 100,000 claims are waiting for a decision at the Board of Veterans Appeals. The department has responded by hiring thousands of new claims adjudicators, a kind of brute force approach.” The number of claims is expected to reach 1 million in the next several years, McChesney reports.
On Sunday May 23, you can watch a one-hour TV special—right here on the ReadTheSpirit website—from “Global Spirit.” On this special broadcast, directors of “Soldier’s Heart” will talk about “Forgiveness and Healing.” You can learn more about this program on our “Global Spirit” page.
What is “The Messenger” about?
The drama is about far more than the process of informing families of military deaths. The film digs deep into the values and the spiritual costs we collectively have entangled in our current wars. In fact, in the DVD and Blu-Ray release, there’s an additional film included: a fascinating documentary about real families and real officers who carry out this mission of notification week after week. I found the documentary almost as stirring as the drama.
In “The Messenger,” Harrelson plays an experienced officer, suffering from his own demons. Among other things, he is a recovering alcoholic whose one noble talent is carrying out the role of death notification for the Army. This is a kind of special ministry—as you’ll learn if you watch the documentary included on the disc—and Harrelson understands all aspects of this calling. As the film unfolds, he has to train a young sergeant in these duties. This younger soldier was wounded in Iraq and watched close friends die in combat—and carries with him an almost overwhelming rage at the senseless loss of life he witnessed.
Here’s a conversation between three characters, very early in the film, that suggests some of the depth and the power you’ll find in this drama. Harrelson’s Capt. Stone is meeting with a commanding officer and together these two older men are orienting the young Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery to his new role.
Commander to Montgomery: Capt. Stone will show you the ropes. He is the expert. But until he does I just want to make myself totally clear: … This mission is not simply important, it is sacred.
Montgomery: Sir, if I may?
Commander nods: Go ahead.
Montgomery: Sir, I have not received any grief counseling, let alone given it. I’m not a religious man, sir.
Stone, interrupting them: We’re just there for notification—not God. Not heaven.
Commander taking over again and speaking sternly to Montgomery: This job is about character. Now, I have had soldiers go out on notification and break into a stutter—men so nervous they read from a script and they still get the name wrong or the address. Too many tears. I need men of solid stature. Now you are a model soldier. Hell, you’re a hero.
Stone begins rattling off parts of the code for notification, including this general instruction: What you actually need to do is pretty simple. Read the guidebook. Learn the script. Stick to the script. …. Never say stuff like “lost” or “expired” or “passed away,” things people misunderstand. I knew this guy once who told this old lady her grandson was “no longer with us.” And, she thought he had defected to the enemy—started calling him a traitor. We need to be clear. Need to say “killed” or “died.” And, we don’t say “the deceased.” We call each casualty by name.
Stone and Montgomery set out on their mission. As we might expect, some notifications go horribly awry. Families express rage and grief and even physically attack the two officers. The anger and abuse stuns Montgomery. Eventually, Stone takes Montgomery aside and tries to explain why so many families explode at the officers in inappropriate ways. Stone says: Soldiers go to war and everyone waves flags and applauds. Look at charts! Study strageties! Have informed opionions! Then bullets fly and soldiers die and it’s such a shock! … What did they think it was going to be like? “Fear Factor”?
By the end of “The Messenger” we’re asking, too: What did we think war was going to be like?
See the film. See it with friends. You’ll have no shortage of discussion afterward.
(Originally published at readthespirit.com)