On the day I went to see Oren Moverman’s The Messenger, the editorialists for the London Daily Telegraph were so moved by an interview in that paper with Christina Schmid, the widow of Olaf Schmid, a British soldier killed in Afghanistan, that they published an article in which they are described as “Two Heroes of the War in Afghanistan.” Sgt. Schmid had been a bomb disposal expert who, after defusing 64 IEDs during his tour, was killed shortly before he was due to come home by the 65th. Mrs. Schmid was commended because her “public dignity and self-control, rare qualities nowadays when people are expected to display their emotions openly, are heroic in their own way.” The editorial added that “none of the speeches made by our politicians have come close to matching the straightforward explanation offered by Mrs. Schmid for why the troops are there. ‘They are there to protect our homeland — that is why they go to war — and they should feel loved and appreciated,’ she said.”
Loved and appreciated as opposed to what? Well, one answer would be pitied, which is pretty much all that the American movie industry can manage, even when it is sponsoring an Israeli director like Mr. Moverman, who co-wrote the screenplay to The Messenger with Alessandro Camon. Pity we have got plenty of, and not just for the soldiers who have nothing to show for their service but psychological trauma. There’s also pity for the next of kin of those killed in action, notification of whom is the job of the film’s two soldier heroes, Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson). Will, a staff sergeant, is a decorated veteran of the Iraq war, a bona fide hero; Tony, an improbably aged captain, is a veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War (“it wasn’t much of a war”) who feels aggrieved that he never got to go back to war again. One of the bereaved, a young widow played by Samantha Morton, catches the fancy of Sgt. Montgomery, but any potential relationship between the two is hedged about with scruples on both sides.
It’s not much of a story, really, though there are some added bits to hold our interest. Will has an ex-girlfriend named Kelly (Jena Malone) who dumped him when he was overseas and now is about to marry Alan (Michael Chernus), though not without some regrets for her lost soldier-boy. Will and Tony at first don’t much like each other, then become buddies and go on a fishing trip, then crash Kelly’s and Alan’s engagement party and behave rather badly, then tell each other of their secret sorrows. Yet, through all this the movie seems oddly offhand about, even uninterested in, the relationship between them. What it’s really about is the emotions of the bereaved, which may easily be imagined, and the reaction to them of the two soldiers whose news precipitates those emotions — and whose own emotions cannot remain unengaged by them.
In short, the movie is grief-porn. Like regular porn, it extracts a certain kind of feeling from the lived context that normally produces it — we receive only the most perfunctory introduction to the bereaved, who have no other purpose here than to suffer — and isolates that feeling in order to put it on show for those who get a “transgressive” thrill out of watching what they know should not be watched. What ought to be essentially private experience is opened up to the public in order to produce a vicarious sense of participation in those with a liking for such titillation. The difference is that the users of porn are still quite often ashamed of themselves for violating others’ privacy in this way, whereas the audience of The Messenger is much more likely to congratulate itself for its compassion and its moral superiority to those deluded souls — who are wisely kept off-stage in this movie — with an Horatian sense of the honor of military sacrifice. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori? We may love our boys in uniform, but we daren’t tell them that anymore!
Is nothing sacred? we may ask. Yes. Grief is sacred. Emotion generally is pretty special, but grief is the king of emotions, the one deserving of the highest respect and awe. In its name, all is permitted; with its sanction, we assure ourselves that we have some understanding of what the grief-stricken have endured and thus some level of participation in their moral exaltation. I think we delude ourselves. I think the most affecting grief for those who do not themselves share it is the kind that is not given way to. Christina Schmid is said in another article to have “told ten days ago how she was ‘beaming’ with pride” when her husband’s body was brought back to England. “‘I am very pleased to have my husband home. He is an absolute hero,’ she said defiantly, as she wore his service medals. ‘It was awesome to see that plane coming in and to see him being taken off by his friends.'” And yet what she doesn’t say she feels is felt nonetheless. Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt, to put it in the decent obscurity of a dead language. We can’t help our feelings for those to whom the tears of mortality have come. But grief that has anything more than that to say about itself, publicly, is cheapened.
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