‘The Messenger,” the critically acclaimed film now playing nationally, follows two U.S. Army casualty notification officers as they visit families to inform them that their loved ones have been killed in combat. Clearly, it is a subject ripe with political possibilities, but it is one director and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman knows well.
Moverman was born in Israel. He attended high school in the States when his banker father was transferred here. But he returned to Israel to fulfill his military commitment, serving as a paratrooper from age 18 to 22, in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories.
That experience “informed me in terms of what I believed was an understanding of the military and an understanding of the emotional landscape of soldiers’ existence,” he said in a telephone interview. “I have direct experience with the subject emotionally and the mindset of the soldier coming home.”
Despite the emotionally charged theme, Moverman quickly points out that this “is not a pro-war or anti-war movie. We didn’t come to it with any kind of political agenda. What we wanted to do in some small way is a film about the people who have to live with the consequences of war and somehow start a conversation.”
Ben Foster stars as Will Montgomery, a heroic sergeant who has just returned from war. He’s saved the lives of some of his troops in battle, but returns home emotionally empty. Montgomery has a few months of military commitment left and is assigned to Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), a recovering alcoholic and a stickler for following the regulations, who make the visits almost as impersonal as a telegram.
Moreover, while trying to find some way to heal, Montgomery is drawn to Olivia Pitterson (Samantha Morton), to whom he has just delivered terrible news about her husband.
“The Messenger” is a difficult and heart-wrenching movie filled with potential pitfalls for even an experienced director, but more so for Moverman, a first-timer. Ironically, he notes, “it wasn’t my intention to direct.” Actually three other directors were approached first, and for one reason or another it didn’t work out.
In fact, one of the reasons he initially turned down a shot at directing the film was his conviction that a more experienced hand should be at the helm of what he considered an important and sensitive film. So he signed on to direct a film in Berlin. It was only when that fell through at the last minute that he agreed to direct the script he co-wrote.
It was a task in which he had to walk a fine line: harnessing talented actors given meaty roles (with potential for serious overacting), on the one hand, yet allowing them freedom to explore their parts, on the other.
Clearly he managed the balancing act. Part of what allowed him to interact so easily with his actors is that they respected his military experiences. His military background also helped him with the Army, which supported the movie despite the “somewhat controversial” story arc involving Montgomery and Pitterson. “We had some discussion about it, but they were fine with it,” Moverman says.
In part, the Army was happy that the two, who were attracted to each other, did not even kiss. Also, the military was convinced that Moverman would handle the situation with delicacy.
“I got a lot of respect because I served in the military. It was a big plus that the guy directing this film was a guy who understood the mind of a soldier.”
Casualty notification is handled much differently here than in Israel. Here it seems by rote. “The Secretary of the Army is sorry to inform you…” The CNOs are not allowed to touch or in any real way comfort family members. They deliver the news almost coldly, following a script, then inform the bereaved that additional assistance will come in 24 hours.
“It ends up being somewhat cruel, but the [Army’s] intention is to do this in an honorable way,” Moverman says.
In Israel, he continues, “they do notifications in a personal way. They send a team that comes and stays with the family, including a psychologist and a doctor. It’s such a small country, and the news comes fast. I think a lot of times when the soldiers arrive, the family already knows.”
Most of the stories about the families Stone and Montgomery visit are “made up but based in research.” One in particular resonates. It is a Jewish household; there is a mezuzah on the door. The soldiers ask for Marla Galinda.
The head of household says no one by that name lives here. Then it slowly dawns on him, and he runs upstairs to get his daughter, Marla Cohen. She married her non-Jewish boyfriend before he shipped out, and now she is distraught, her husband dead and her father angry.
“We wanted a family that wasn’t a typical military family but was connected through the daughter,” Moverman says. “She was dating someone who is not Jewish, and that created fiction. But when he heard what happened, he turns from very angry parent back into a father immediately.”