The Messenger opened the 12th Savannah Film Festival with a bang: a sellout crowd, international press, and Hollywood stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster in attendance to rub elbows all night. Even without the glitz, though, Savannah was a smart place to screen the Iraq drama. Oren Moverman's film is a character study about a soldier (Foster) dealing with the aftermath of war, but like Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq film The Hurt Locker, it's about the personal toll Iraq leaves on soldiers who survive and the families of those who don't; the politics of war are hardly an issue. And so, in a city that supports two military bases and the men and women who serve them, The Messenger played like gangbusters.
Foster stars as William Montgomery, a recent Iraq returnee dealing with serious leftover issues and a new assignment to play out his final three months of service: informing families that their loved ones have been killed on duty. As Montgomery's partner, Harrelson provides moments of levity, but there were plenty of sniffles throughout the film just the same.
While it was pretty easy to figure out what the general consensus was, there were three figures in particular I was watching for a reaction – the only three uniformed soldiers in attendance, who may or may not have been connected to the production. (The film has been screened for military personnel, and Harrelson and Foster personally met soldiers at Hunter Army Airfield prior to the night's screening.) When asked what military folk have thought of his film in the post-screening Q&A, director Moverman deferred to one of the officers in the audience to share his reaction with the crowd. What follows is the unnamed soldier's impromptu review of The Messenger. "The character of Staff Sergeant Montgomery is very close, to a tee; there are men and women, and myself, that have those issues. They are no different than anyone else. We're husbands and wives, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles. To me, this brings a message home. People don't see the difficulties that we go through. It is hard. It's hard going to a loved one and telling them that they've lost their son or daughter, or their husband or wife. It's very difficult... I've done funeral detail and it's the same thing; it's to honor the ones that have fallen. Everyone has their outlook on the conflicts, but we're grateful that you get behind us. There are not enough thanks in the world that can say, but that does really mean a lot to all of us. It truly does, because of the sacrifices we've gone through. Deep in our hearts, we really are very grateful for that."
To director Moverman: "Sir, the way you directed the movie -- [filling] the background with active-duty soldiers who came back from deployment in theater -- that has a great authenticity to it. It's very humbling, and very sincere... I hope someday that the American Film Institute will include your movie, representing this era in our history someday as a must-watch movie, for us to get a good understanding. Thank you."
To Woody Harrelson: "Woody – oh, man. Yes, we all have a sense of humor in the military, and when we're off duty and put away the ACU [Army Combat Uniform], yes, we do get down."
To Ben Foster: "This is the year of the non-commissioned officer. And you played the role very well. You showed the human side of yourself as a character. Man, I love you for that, brother. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You do us really proud."
Oren Moverman's The Messenger opens in limited release November 13 in New York and Washington, D.C. Can it gain momentum as The Hurt Locker did months ago, especially with endorsements like this?