The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
Solid work by actor Michelle Monaghan, who was terrific as Woody Harrelson’s wife in HBO’s “True Detective,” is the main attraction in Claudia Myers’ “Fort Bliss,” which examines the battles a female soldier faces when she returns to the home front. Although competently made, the film is such a run-of-the-mill military melodrama that it might have skipped its assuredly brief theatrical appearance and gone straight to VOD.
The seemingly interminable conflict in Afghanistan having become America’s longest war, it’s hardly surprising that it (like the now-reviving Iraq War) has produced a spate of dramatic movies about its human costs for American soldiers. These generally break down into those that observe the action “in country” and others which chronicle the after-effects on returning soldiers. “Fort Bliss” starts out looking like the first type of movie but soon transforms into the second.
The tale opens in the heat of battle as a U.S. convoy is attacked while on a night mission and all hell breaks loose. In a chillingly gruesome scene, Army medic Maggie Swann (Monaghan) faces the task of extracting a large piece of ordnance from a badly wounded but still conscious soldier. Her cool expertise at performing this torturous action shows that she’s a battle-hardened pro. Fortunately for her, it’s her last day in Afghanistan. But next up, she’ll test the maxim that it’s harder going home than going to war.
Back in the U.S. at the eponymous fort, Maggie first has to deal with the extreme disaffection of her five-year-old son, Paul (Oakes Fegley), who during her latest tour of duty has been living with her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston) and his current wife. When Maggie comes to pick him up, the boy looks at her as if she’s a stranger and screams his head off as she takes away with her. While the strength of this antagonism stretches credulity somewhat (wouldn’t such distant parents be in constant touch with their kids by Skype?), the scenes between mother and son, which gradually grow warmer and more affectionate, convey the difficulties that long separations cause families.
But family isn’t Maggie’s only challenge. Still on active duty, she’s charged with training a unit of medics who will eventually be sent to Afghanistan. It’s supposed to a temporary assignment, but then the group’s schedule is sped up, and she’s told she will go back to war with them. Fearing that her slowly recovering relationship with her son would be dealt a mortal blow by another long separation, she comes up with a plan to get herself assigned to a two-year tour of duty in South Korea, where Paul could accompany her. But Richard is enraged at the thought of not seeing his son for two years and threatens to sue for custody. And there’s another complication: Maggie gradually comes to see that the officer who would replace her in training the medics for Afghanistan (excellent Gbenga Akinnadbe) is a ticking time bomb whose unstable mental health could endanger her charges.
As if all this weren’t enough, Maggie has emotional problems of her own. When her car breaks down one day, she gets some help and borrows a motorcycle from Luis (Manolo Cardona), a handsome Latino garage owner. Later he takes her out for salsa dancing and margaritas, and soon enough they’re in bed; but while she’s hungry for sex, she can’t complete the act without coming to the edge of a mental meltdown. No wonder, given her volatile life, that her troubles include intimacy issues.
“Fort Bliss” grew out of documentaries about veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including “The Long Road Home” and “Women at War,” that writer-director Myers previously made, and that no doubt explains both positive and not-so-positive things about it. On the plus side, the film’s account of its heroine’s problems feels very accurate and informed. On the other hand, it also feels like a drama that’s been made rather schematically from a checklist of such problems rather than more organically. Likewise, though Myers’ staging and work with her cast, especially the charismatic and skilled Monaghan, is adroit, the film’s sense of style might be called off-the-rack.
In times past, “Fort Bliss” would have been called a “programmer.” There’s no derogation in that description, but no particular distinction either.