Home of the Brave (2006): Irwin Winkler’s Tale of Homecoming of Iraq Troops

Director Irwin Winkler deserves credit for his courage to make Home of the Brave, the first major feature about the homecoming of U.S. troops from Iraq, but that’s all he deserves.
Though timely and relevant, “Home of the Brave” is such a mediocre work that it’s easier to admire its honorable intentions than to praise its artistic merits. The film may be honest, but it lacks true grit, real drama, profound ideas; it’s not even good by standards of TV-Movie-of-the-Week.

“Home of the Brave” is meant to be a stirring, unflinching and multi-layered war drama about a diverse group of National Guard soldiers that returns to Spokane, Washington after getting caught in a harrowing Iraqi street ambush. We have seen it before, perhaps not about Iraq, but about WWII, Vietnam, and other wars.

The filmmakers claim that despite the return of more than 150,000 vets their haunting and inspirational stories have remained hidden from the medias and the public’s view. The movie is meant to pay tribute to this courageous group, but it’s so pedestrian in writing, direction, and even acting that perhaps the subject should have remained untouched-until the director with the right approach and talent could be found.

To his credit, Winkler has done his homework. He cites Machiavelli (“Wars begin where you will but they do not end where you please) and has obviously studied William Wyler’s great post-WWII epic, The Best Years of Our Lives, which won the 1946 Best Picture Oscar and other major awards.

You can’t blame the actors. The accomplished ensemble includes vet Samuel L. Jackson, rising star Jessica Biel, indie actress Christina Ricci, rap star Curtis 50 Cent Jackson, One Tree Hills Chad Michael Murray and newcomer Brian Presley.

Winkler wishes to take us on a journey into the inner worlds of four returning soldiers, each facing a personal battle as they attempt to return to the family, friends, and lives they left behind before being thrust into the catalytic changes of combat.

The story begins with depiction of a visceral action in Iraq, but as soon as the soldiers return home, which is one reel into the long, dragging saga, a predictable, borderline banal narrative takes over. The film’s only innovation is that one of the four vets is a young woman (and single mom).

But first the good stuff: The story kicks off in Southeastern Iraq, where a war-wearied National Guard unit has just received the news that they are about to be demobilizedthey’re finally sent back home to the safety of Spokane. However, when they head out on one final humanitarian mission in the nearby town of Al Hayy, things go terribly wrong. Ensnared by insurgents, a ferocious and chaotic firefight ensues, from which none of the group escapes unscathed.

Back in Spokane, the soldiers find themselves still reeling from the ambushs lasting effects, haunted by their personal demons and feeling a deep disconnect between themselves and those leading everyday American lives around them.

Take the heroic medic Will Marsh (Jackson), who had saved countless lives in Iraq, but when he tries to go back to being a regular dad, husband and doctor again, he finds that hes unraveling inside.

Similarly, the once confident Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel), fresh out of rehab and physical therapy, faces the toughest challenge of her young life: learning to be a single mom with a single hand.

Meanwhile, Private Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) returns without his best friend Jordan (Chad Michael Murray), who dies in his arms in a bloody shootout at a cemetery.

For his part, Jamal Aiken (Curtis 50 Cent Jackson) discovers that a split-second, deadly shooting during the Al Hayy battle has sent his life at home spiraling into mayhem.

At the heart of the movie are the battles waged by these four characters–both in Iraq and deep inside their souls as they try to find their own individual ways to begin their lives at home again after the rigors of combat.

We know that it’s only a matter of time before the characters will acknowledge to themselvesand to othersthat they need help. We also know that sooner or later the characters will meet and bond. We expect that they will have problems making love, and that after having sex, there will be close-ups of tortured faces. We anticipate a meeting between Tommy and the girlfriend (Ricci) of his late friend Jordan, in which she will make harsh, cynical statements about fighting wars and heroism before breaking down emotionally upon being given a box of mementos from her dead lover.

We follow these paths and motions patiently, hoping for a glimmer of originality. But, alas, Winkler and his writer also burden the story with heavy-duty Freudian psychology, here in the shape of an intergenerational conflict between Marsh and his pacifist (or at least anti-War) adolescent son.

Occasionally, there are some touching scenes, as the one in which Vanessa finally begins to date. The scene in which she and her beau struggle to remove her shirtdue to her having one handcontains much desired realistic humor.

Main problem is familiarity with the basic situations and conflicts and lack of specificity, namely, a way to signal how this particular warunlike WWII or Vietnamhas resulted in new or different kinds of adjustments to civilian life.

I don’t mean to penalize the filmmakers by suggesting that there was more truth, humor, and reality in films like “Best Years of Our Lives” and “The Men” (1950), which featured Marlon Brando’s stunning screen debut as a paraplegic, and that those films were made over half a century ago.