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Movies About War and the Soldiers Who Survive It

By Nancy Heller Moskowitz, LPC, NCC, CCMHC
AMHCA’s Public Awareness, Advocacy & Marketing Committee

“War is Hell!” Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously said. For many soldiers, going to war is synonymous with being in Hell—a hot, uncomfortable place where all are asked to pay a price for life or freedom. 

War movies are a part of our history. I remember watching an old movie in the 1960s, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946), about the lives of three returning soldiers from WWII. No longer the same men who had left home, they endured an emotional experience as they tried to reintegrate with their families and hometowns. Nothing would ever be the same as it was before the war.

With each war or campaign that the United States has been involved with, another crop of war movies is created. Who can forget the raw emotion of “The Deer Hunter”? Actors Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken showed us how the return of the Vietnam vet brought to light PTSD, although it wasn’t called that back then.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also prompted a spate of war-related movies. Two of them—“Brothers” (2009) and “The Dry Land” (2010)—portray plots revolving around the return of a soldier, just like the classics mentioned above about earlier wars. Though each of these recent films displays concern about U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the films focus less on the soldiers’ lives while at war and more on the responses of the family and the soldier to the soldier’s return to their earlier life.

“The Dry Land,” which was released at the end of the summer, focuses on a family’s issues following a soldier’s return from Iraq. In this film the protagonist, played by Ryan O’Nan, has a former service buddy act as his support, instead of his wife and family. I haven’t seen this film, so each of you will need to preview it before deciding if portions of this film will be helpful to any of your clientele.

In “Brothers,” the viewer meets Sam and Grace Cahill, with their two daughters, getting ready for Sam’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan. In one scene, Grace asks Sam not to go, but he says he must. She doesn’t understand his desire to return. Sam feels it is his duty, a duty greater than the love he feels for his family. He is the ideal son to his father, a Vietnam veteran.

His brother, Tommy, in contrast, has just been released from prison, and is considered shiftless and no good. Tommy, played by actor Jake Gyllenhaal, is the scapegoat in the first part of the movie.

When Sam leaves for Afghanistan, we see a glimpse of his life there before his helicopter is shown crashing, leading us to believe that everyone onboard is killed. A Marine and the chaplain are featured visiting Sam’s house in the next scene. Not much is said, but the emotion shown by Natalie Portman, the actress who plays Grace, is very moving, especially since her daughters are the ones who open the front door. 

The relationship between Tommy, Grace, and her daughters consumes much of the mid-section of the movie. This is important as it illustrates how each family member adjusts to the loss of Sam. The daughters become very attached to Tommy, who transforms from being worthless to becoming the glue that holds the family together.

One of the most affecting scenes is when Sam, played by Tobey Maguire, does come home. He supposedly has had some counseling, yet can’t adjust to his surroundings. He accuses his brother and wife of having an affair. This is not the case, but Sam doesn’t let it go. Later on, he destroys the kitchen after a confrontation with each of them. 
In another scene, his daughter, Isabelle, asks, “Why couldn’t you just stay dead?” As the scene unfolds, the viewer knows that Sam feels the same thing. He isn’t safe, he isn’t productive, and he doesn’t feel anything but grief and guilt. 

In the final scene, as Sam is outside a VA hospital, he says, “Only the dead have seen the end of war. I have seen the end of war. The question is, How do I go on living?” He is returning to the hospital and I believe this is a scene of hope. 

Because of its emotional content, this is a film that should be shown in a group, with a facilitator, rather than offered for home viewing. 

I would expect it to provide a cathartic release for veteran and civilian alike, based on user reviews I have read. I am grateful that we are more aware of the trauma experienced by soldiers at war and more knowledgeable in how to deal with it. More soldiers and their families are seeking counseling upon the conclusion of their tour of duty. 
Though some scenes in the film seem more Hollywood than real life, the movie is worth seeing.

Until next time, 

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