Sunday, May 11, 2014

War stories

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2010)

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in being able to see a bit of the world – every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island, much of Europe, Israel, Australia, China, Japan, South Africa. But I’ve never been to any of the red states that voted for George W Bush. I’d been to places like New York, Boston, Washington, Seattle and San Francisco, and at some point in the early Bush years it occurred to me this was all blue territory. I started to make a joke out of this, and then it became established as part of my identity, so it’s difficult to imagine breaking it now.

My Lefty Views

I guess I have to admit, not that it’ll be a surprise to anyone, to being one of the liberal elite: one of those artsy big city types who can readily be accused of moral relativism and indifference to decent core working class values. I’m not religious – I don’t believe in any of it. I can enjoy talking to friends about their beliefs, but I wouldn’t last a week in a stridently church-going environment. I don’t like the iconography of pick-up trucks and fast food and malls and sports bars (I’ve sometimes been accused of not liking any of the things most people like). I don’t think I’ve ever been to a Wal-Mart, not more than once anyway. Not long ago I was in a packed bar in Alberta where, as far as I could tell, I was the only guy drinking wine (and one of the very few not wearing any form of headgear). I don’t like the military culture. I “support our troops” in the obvious sense that I don’t wish them any ill will, but I’d rather support them by bringing them home and not putting them in danger for questionable purposes. I absolutely hate gun culture, and particularly detest the self-serving intersection of beliefs that encompasses religion, guns, low taxes…I guess basically the Fox News/tea party agenda. Actually I’ve never seen Fox News, and I’ve never tried to seek out what’s said on there, so it also bugs me I seem to know so much about it.

I guess you get the point. This is a necessary background to explaining my reaction to two films I recently watched on cable (they’re also readily available on DVD - neither of them received a release in theatres here): The Lucky Ones and Grace is Gone. They’re quite similar in tone and broad content. Grace is Gone portrays a Minnesota Home Depot worker whose wife is serving in Iraq. When he’s notified of her death, he can’t bring himself to tell their two young daughters, and puts it off, driving them instead to a Florida amusement park. In The Lucky Ones, three soldiers – two on leave, the other at the end of his tour of duty – end up sharing a rental car to get home. One of them gets a divorce request from his wife virtually as soon as he enters the house; another was injured and is paranoid about his masculinity; the third doesn’t have much going beyond a bunch of half-baked ideas and dreams.

Grace is Gone

Both films obviously have an element of contrivance to them – yet more road-trip movies. But I must admit I found them almost as anthropologically instructive as a movie from Mongolia or Sierra Leone would be (well all right, that’s overstating it a bit). In Grace is Gone, the father (played by John Cusack) seems initially like a standard-issue Bush republican, a limited man who doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t really know how to talk to his daughters. Over the course of the film though, we realize this is almost as much voluntarily assumed as culturally imposed: he’s a frightened man, shaped in part by past disappointments, and feeling emasculated by the role reversal (an early scene has him as the only male member of a support group for spouses), and if he can’t believe in the ultimate rightness of things, then he says (in one of his few introspective moments), we’re all lost. His wife’s death forces him to recalibrate, but he has no idea how, grabbing almost randomly at the Florida trip idea. In the end, inevitably, he’s undergone some growth, but it’s just about as limited as you’ll ever see in a film of this kind.

The Lucky Ones is more ambitious and accomplished. It’s more explicit about the constant financial strain on the average American; the oldest of the soldiers (played by Tim Robbins) has a house that’s mortgaged to the hilt, and his old job isn’t there anymore. Rachel McAdams’ character isn’t portrayed as being very bright – she has the random knowledge of someone who’s just picked stuff up here and there. She’s honestly and unshowily religious though, at one point wandering into a church service as others might into a mall, standing up and asking the preacher to pray for her companions. Afterwards they’re invited to a local shindig, and Robbins gets propositioned by a woman whose husband likes to watch. The proximity of formal propriety against sexual pragmatism is unforced, but utterly convincing, reminding us for example teen pregnancies are higher in the Bible belt than in the dreaded liberal strongholds. Life, basically, just isn’t very rich: you can’t blame people for wanting a little more.

The Lucky Ones

Like Grace is Gone, it conveys an honest respect for the act of soldiering, but it’s more explicit about the underlying compromises (in tough times, the signing bonus virtually seems like a way of bribing the poor to fight a war cooked up by the rich). It also conveys the dislocation of coming home to an environment where, all the “supporting the troops” lip service aside, people don’t really care about you, mock your injuries or your lack of knowledge of the latest cultural crap, or force you to listen to their glib analyses of what you’re doing wrong. As the end of The Hurt Locker suggested in a flashier way, for all your fatigue and fear, home becomes the foreign land.

The soldiers in The Lucky Ones do what they can to get on top of their lives, but it’s not much. America is increasingly a big lie – inadequate rulers, demented media, no meaningful public conversation, and just millions of exploited people at the middle of it all; its self-notion as still being the land of opportunity mainly a fog now in the way of seeing how limited and lost it all is. And maybe it’s better not to see anyway. It’s no surprise that the title of The Lucky Ones is meant ironically, but what a bitter irony it is. Of course, I know that’s not the entire story of the red states, any more than my Toronto is the same as everyone else’s, but it’s surely the one that matters most. Maybe I’ll go and see for myself, eventually. 

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