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Oren Moverman’s ‘The Messenger’: The unseen casualties of war

by Naomi Pfefferman

November 20, 2009 | 7:37 pm

'The Messenger opens Friday, November 20, 2009

'The Messenger opens Friday, November 20, 2009

When filmmaker Oren Moverman returned to Givatayim, near Tel Aviv, on leave from his paratrooper unit during the first Lebanon War, he often shut himself in his room and repeatedly watched the Vietnam War saga “Apocalypse Now.”

“My head was still in the combat zone,” the 43-year-old said from his Manhattan home.  “When you immerse a man into a world of violence and death, then bring him back to ‘normal’ life, he feels like he’s from another planet.  And, now, everything’s supposed to be fine, everyone’s moved on, but he is still back there, in a way.”

Moverman has brought his first-hand knowledge of what he calls the emotional landscape of war to his directorial debut, “The Messenger,” now in theaters.  It is the first of the recent spate of American films about the Iraq War, including “The Hurt Locker” and “In the Valley of Elah,” by to be penned by a former soldier. 

In the quietly searing drama—which has earned excellent reviews and Oscar buzz – a wounded Iraq War veteran and a jaded Army captain pair up to work one of the most dreaded jobs in the military:  as casualty notification officers who must inform “next-of-kin” that a loved one has died.  Amidst the death calls, the tightly wound men reveal their respective psychic wounds.  Beneath his bluster and chattiness, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), is an alcoholic, relationship-resistant, lonely mess.  And the returning veteran, Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), seldom speaks publicly but virtually convulses with anger while isolated in his room.

Moverman identifies most with Foster’s character, specifically the disorientation the fictional Ben feels upon returning to civilian life.  “There is a ‘theater’ of the Army—macho posturing where guys learn to bury their emotions and to act in expected ways,” the director said.  “All this adds up and becomes harrowing.  Some soldiers find themselves locked up inside, which is what Ben Foster’s character is going through.  He’s had hellish experiences; he’s come out of them alive, so there’s survivor’s guilt, and also hero’s guilt, because he perceives that he has done nothing extraordinary.  And he’s drinking a lot, he’s trying to numb himself, he’s not sleeping well, he goes to the supermarket in the middle of the night, he’s listening to music as loud as he can to drown out the [psychic] noise.”

The soft-spoken Moverman is quick to add that he did not include any of his actual military experiences to the script, only the emotional ones—above all his desire to ease his way back into civilian life, in his case by moving to New York to become a filmmaker.  “Much of ‘The Messenger’ is about someone who has been traumatized but who is actively trying to get back to a place where he can connect and function – ironically through casualty notification.”

The idea for the film emerged several years ago, as Moverman and “The Messenger’s” co-writer, Alessandro Camon discussed a newspaper story about a casualty notifications officer and realized the process could provide a dramatic way into a story about the unseen consequences of war.  Unseen to Americans, that is.

“Because the Israel Defense Forces is a people’s army, you grow up with images of your father putting on his uniform for reserve duty, and, in my case, my dad leaving to fight in the Yom Kippur War,” Moverman said.  “I also grew up grow up seeing and hearing about the flip side of that:  the casualty notification team who would knock on your door when a loved one had died.”

Moverman seems loathe to discuss details of his own military service, which occurred from 1984 to 1988 and included the first Intifada.  He alternately dismisses his experiences by saying they were not that interesting while hinting that they were, in fact, deeply disturbing and life-altering. 

Yet it was while patrolling in Hebron one day in 1985 that Moverman received what would turn out to be his big break into the American film business.  Because he had lived in the United States with his family as a teenager, the young Israeli spoke good English, and so was asked by his sergeant to stop a tourist who had emerged from a taxi carrying a video camera.  When Moverman told the visitor he could not shoot in the military zone, the enraged tourist, a documentarian, began screaming and denouncing the occupation.

“I told him I agreed with many of his views, but I was a soldier, and this was what I was sent to do – even though I would have loved to help him, because I was interested in film,” the director recalled. “I think that disarmed him; we began talking, and he gave me his business card.”  When Moverman moved to New York to study cinema at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1988, the documentarian helped him get a job working with direct cinema legend Al Maysles. 

Moverman went on to make a name for himself as a writer or co-writer on films such as Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” “Jesus’ Son” and “Married Life.” 

While scripting “The Messenger,” he researched the United States’s casualty notification process, which was quite different from the one he remembered from Israel.  The IDF team, he said, consists of four service men, a psychiatrist and a physician:  “People do faint or have heart attacks,” he explained of the need for a medical doctor.  The U.S. process, he learned, is sparer:  Just two officers, a scripted speech from the secretary of the Army, the facts of death, and word that another officer will follow up with the family.  “Some people perceive this to be rather cold, but I think the intention is to break the news in an honorable way.”

During production on “The Messenger,” Moverman shot each of the six casualty notification scenes with a hand-held camera in one long take.  To enhance the intensity he did not allow his stars to see the actors portraying the next of kin until they actually opened the door in the sequence. 

During the 28-day shoot at Fort Dix, Moverman said, military personnel showed him extra respect because he was an Israeli veteran; Foster, meanwhile, urged him to tell his own war stories.

“[Oren] didn’t want to say he was in war, he was in an occupation,” Foster told IFC.com.  “He’s a really humble guy, but he understands the mindset of a warrior.  It’s pretty basic. You’re horny all the time, you’re worrying about who’s f———your girlfriend, you want to shoot something, you’re bored, you’re terrified.  Getting back to life with people who don’t share the same experiential vocabulary can be very isolating.”

The conversations proved illuminating for Moverman.

“For some reason I had been able to separate the fact that I’ve served in the military from the fact that I was making this kind of film, which probably says a lot about my lack of self-awareness” he said.  “But Ben asked me a lot of questions and the more I spoke the more I found connections to the character, which moved this project to a place where I was even more personally invested.”

‘The Messenger opens Friday, November 20, 2009

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