MGM // 2006 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // October 23rd, 2007
Coming home is the real battle.
One of the first films to deal with the current war in Iraq, Home of the Brave looks at the domestic fallout of tragedies abroad.
After a violent ambush leaves several of their comrades dead, three soldiers find themselves back home in Spokane, traumatized to different degrees by the Iraq conflict in which they were fighting:
Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction), a surgeon, returns to his practice but struggles to relate to his family. Before long, Marsh is seeking comfort in a bottle, while his son rebels by speaking out against the war.
Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel, The Illusionist) lost her right hand in the skirmish, and now the most mundane tasks take on a new challenge. Her fierce desire to refuse what help is offered to her, however, doesn't make things any easier.
Tommy Yates (Brian Presley, End Game) watched his best friend get gunned down in front of him while he was incapacitated with a leg injury. Arriving back in the States, Tommy drifts aimlessly, trying to cope with guilt and to decide where to take his life next.
The three veterans barely know each other, but they attack similar challenges as they try to rebuild what the war destroyed in their lives.
Home of the Brave is an ambitious picture for director Irwin Winkler (Life as a House), tackling an ongoing, heated conflict through a humanistic lens. While it succeeds more often than not, it is an uneven film overall, vacillating between being genuinely moving and heavy-handed.
Starting out in Iraq, Home of the Brave sets up its visual style early on, using wide shots with deep focus to feature several characters at once, with colors subtly desaturated and editing slow and deliberate. While it is trendy -- and now almost requisite -- to use handheld, documentary-style camera work any time a movie features a combat situation, kudos to Winkler and cinematographer Tony Pierce Roberts (Disclosure) for making the early battle sequence refreshingly clear. The combat is terrifying rather than exciting, and while the soldiers don't use their weapons with the skillful efficiency that we often see in films, I suspect the slight casualness here is fairly close to the reality of how an 18-year-old solder would act. Plenty of exposition is offered in the first few minutes, some of it graceful, some of it clunky, which is indicative of how subsequent scenes will unfold. It isn't difficult to predict who will live and who will die in the upcoming battle, but Home of the Brave isn't trying to be a thriller, and the grim knowledge of what's to come ups the sense of foreboding.
Once we're back to the United States, the three main characters have almost no interaction with each other, which is an noteworthy choice -- Home of the Brave could have easily gone the direction of Crash, intertwining the group to show how they're all connected. There are a few incidental meetings, but for the most part each is living his or her own life and trying to get back to the way things were; no one is particularly interested in rehashing time spent overseas with old colleagues.
There are a number of strong, well-written scenes in which the trio clashes with family, friends, and military bureaucracy, but unfortunately some of the most elegant moments are undermined by quick flashbacks to Iraq -- we've seen what they went through, thank you, and probably have a good idea why they're upset. The most common victim of the overused flashback is Biel's character -- over and over, we see her challenged by her prosthetic hand, only to be treated to another glimpse of how she lost it, even though we watched the whole thing play out earlier. Had Winkler decided to omit the opening battle scene, telling the tale of what happened to these troubled individuals over the course of the whole picture, this could have been a useful device, but as it stands here it just feels like lack of trust in the audience.
Despite the overstatement, Home of the Brave has a lot going for it. A few scenes -- especially one in which Vanessa and Tommy discuss the myriad of medications they are on -- have a loud ring of truth, and it's easy to empathize with all the characters throughout. This is not an anti-war movie, or a pro-war movie either for that matter, so there's little sermonizing to be found. Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson has a small role as a former soldier whose pent-up aggression over shooting a civilian is antagonized by the hoops he has to jump through to secure disability benefits, and for my money he shows more promise here than in Get Rich or Die Tryin'.
While the acting is generally solid all around, this should be a breakout for Jessica Biel, who has finally been given a film role with lots to do, showing off an impressive -- and heretofore unexplored -- range. She underplays her frustration and sadness, and is entirely convincing as a young, already divorced mother as well as a soldier. Of all the characters in the film, hers is the one that feels it could sustain a picture of its own, largely due to Biel's skillful performance.
Christina Ricci (The Ice Storm) and Chad Michael Murray (House of Wax) also make brief appearances; while Ricci is her usual reliable self, Murray is woefully over the top, trying too hard to be a tough guy and ending up rather unlikable.
Fox sent us a watermarked check disc for review, which usually means the video quality will be so poor that it's difficult to guess what the final product will look like. Contrary to expectations, though, Home of the Brave looked great with a crisp, film-like presentation, marred only occasionally by edge halos and digital grain. I was surprised to hear that Home of the Brave was shot on digital video, since it's virtually indistinguishable from film, even in fast action sequences. Audio is a low-key affair, with the surrounds blazing to life during the early battle but staying pretty quiet for the balance of the presentation. That said, dialogue is clear and well-balanced, and there's no tearing.
An audio commentary featuring Winkler, producer Rob Cowan, and first-time writer Mark Friedman provides a fair amount of "making of" information, covering locations, preparation, advantages of shooting video over film, and an idea of what kind of movie they were hoping to make. Besides the commentary, two deleted scenes, available with or without commentary of their own, are the sole supplemental features.
Fans of war pictures like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter -- that is, those more concerned with the home front than the battlefield -- should be pleased with Home of the Brave. It's generally well acted, relatable, and nicely shot; if it weren't for those darn flashbacks, this could have been a great film.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary with Irwin Winkler, Rob Cowan, and Mark Friedman
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary