The Messenger (Oscilloscope) – Ben Foster is the combat tested Iraq war veteran who faces the emotional minefield of civilians dealing with the death of a loved one when he’s assigned to spend the last days of his tour on a new mission: casualty notification. “There is no such thing as a satisfied customer,” explains his senior partner, played by Woody Harrelson as a complete professional on the job and a lonely, reckless mess off duty. They are the face of the United States Army in those terrible moments when loved ones are told words they never wanted to hear and faces reactions as varied as the people he meets: rage, blame, despair, denial, and in one instance a tender kindness from a confused widow (Samantha Morton at her most vulnerable) that stings deeper than any verbal or physical lash.
In his directorial debut, Oren Moverman (screenwriter of I’m Not There) offers a poignant story of men in uniform nursing wounds and haunted by loss (both physical and emotional) but unable to see another life for themselves, and a powerful perspective on the casualties of war. Steve Buscemi co-stars a grieving father reduced to blind rage. Nominated for two Academy Awards (Best Supporting Actor Harrelson and Best Original Screenplay). Features commentary by director Moverman with producer Lawerence Inglee and stars Foster and Harrelson, a documentary on Casualty Notification officers, a behind-the-scenes featurette and an audience Q&A with the director and members of the cast and crew among the supplements.
The more prominent New Release this week is Invictus (Warner), Clint Eastwood’s reverent tribute to Nelson Mandella’s efforts to unite post-apartheid South Africa. Unfortunately, it’s less a film than a memorial: handsome, stately, well-meaning and dramatically inert. The film foregrounds Mandella’s efforts to enlist the national rugby team, which many blacks viewed as a symbol of white rule, in his efforts to unite the country around the 1995 World Cup Championship. Morgan Freeman earned an Oscar nod as Mandella and his gentle humor and quiet dignity helps soften the reverent tone that Eastwood brings to the film but doesn’t overcome the contrived efforts to wring an emotional response to every tiny show of solidarity or rouse up to cheer for the team to win that cup. Even Eastwood can’t make rugby look dignified on the big screen but Matt Damon brings great conviction (and a convincing Afrikaner accent) to his role as the team captain.