Will Montgomery is a sergeant in the Army who has served in Iraq, and in fact has been in at least one particularly bloody encounter for which he received a medal and was hailed as a hero, not to mention being traumatized and left with haunting memories. With his service time winding down, he is transferred out of Iraq back to the United States.
Yes, on one level this is good news, as it puts him out of harm’s way. But he is not at all pleased when he finds out that his assignment for his remaining time in the Army is to be a casualty notification officer, i.e., one of those solemn and very formal acting soldiers who appear at your doorstep in pairs to tell you that your loved one has been killed.
His new partner/supervisor/mentor in this role is Captain Tony Stone, a long time casualty notification officer. Stone clearly has had his own traumatic experiences in the service, probably most or all while performing this very duty rather than in combat. The job has worn him down, leaving him an (ambiguously recovering) alcoholic and a troubled man.
Montgomery and Stone get along at times, and clash at times. They’re the kind of macho military guys who are very wary of showing any vulnerability or desire for support, but gradually the walls come down to a significant extent and they are able to be more open and even confessional with each other.
The basic storyline and the various subplots of The Messenger—the growing relationship between Montgomery and Stone, Montgomery’s involvement with one of the widows they notify, etc.—are somewhat interesting and handled fine, and Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are solid in the leads (I’ve liked Harrelson in just about every movie I’ve seen him in), so that alone would make this movie average or better. But what pushes it more clearly into a higher category for me are the notification scenes themselves.
What an incredibly sad, powerful, and important phenomenon that is, and not one that is at all commonly depicted in war movies. Those scenes are riveting and thought-provoking.
It’s predictable that such notifications generate extreme emotions. What may or may not be so predictable is how varied those reactions can be. Some people collapse into wailing and crying. Some people become angry, and direct that anger at the casualty notification officers as the only available target. Some people practice denial by preemptively assuming that the officers must be there for some other purpose (“Oh, is he in trouble again? What did he do this time? I’ve told him again and again…”)
Some try to hold it together any way they can. The most interesting such reaction is that of a widow who shifts her focus to the wellbeing of the casualty notification officers themselves, letting them know that she thoroughly empathizes with them for having such a difficult job and no doubt having to endure plenty of unearned abuse. She tries to be as conscientious as she can about not reacting in a way that will make their job more unpleasant than it already unavoidably is.
That’s a classy response in its way. I kind of hope that I would react that way in such a traumatic situation, that I would try to avoid shifting the negativity onto the bearer of bad news or someone similarly blameless and kind of stuck in the middle.
Further thoughts that came to mind about the notifications:
It’s interesting that everything the casualty notification officers say is closely scripted, and that they must follow strict procedures and rules (e.g., that they are not to have any physical contact with the person they notify). Basically they are to remain impersonal, wooden, unemotional, robotic, and get in and out quickly. (In the movie, they don’t always, especially Montgomery, but they’re supposed to, and I suspect deviations in real life are rarer than what’s allowed here for dramatic purposes.)
I remember a conversation I had long ago with a close friend who is an oncologist who explained to me some of the most beneficial things you can do when giving bad news to patients and their families, which pretty much are the opposite of these military policies.
For example, you never let it seem like you’re rushed. You make it clear you’ll stay there 30 seconds or an hour, that it’s totally up to them. You convey this in part by sitting down. (You can’t look like you have one foot out the door if you’re sitting down.)
You want them to know you’re there for them, to answer any question, to listen, to be supportive through your very presence.
Also, he noted, he always makes it a point to be in physical contact with someone when giving them bad news. Whether it be a hand on their arm, an arm around their shoulder, or even taking their pulse as a pretense for touching them.
I also thought about how when we think of heroism, difficult duties, trauma-inducing experiences, etc. in the military, it’s natural to think about combat and the occasions when there’s a significant chance of being killed or maimed. But the job of casualty notification officer requires courage and strength of character too. It’s not necessarily an easier, softer, or less important duty than those directly involving combat, just different. No doubt some people are better at handling one type of duty than the other, but neither is for wimps and both leave scars.
As I often remind myself when watching war movies, as bad as what we’re seeing is—in this case, as heartbreaking as it is to see these folks being informed their son/husband/whatever is dead—the consequences of war are hugely worse for whatever side is opposing the Americans. Americans are so militarily dominant now that they conduct their wars in a way that makes their casualty rate low to an almost unheard of degree and that pretty well isolates the population from the pain of war. The majority of Americans probably rarely give whatever is the present war a thought other than when they happen to see something about it on the nightly news, and even those who have a loved one in the service and who thus cannot put it out of their mind so easily almost always ultimately have that loved one return in one piece.
And even with all that, even for the overwhelmingly favored side, war is horrific, war results in way too many families being devastated by notifications like those depicted in The Messenger. Now imagine what it’s like for the people on the other end of the drones, the side with the monstrously higher casualty rate, the country upon whose territory the war is being fought.
The Messenger is a well-done film, and a worthwhile reminder about a small but very important aspect of war that gets little attention.