Oren Moverman’s ‘The Messenger’: The unseen casualties of war

When filmmaker Oren Moverman returned to Givatayim, near Tel Aviv, on leave from his paratrooper unit during the first Lebanon War, he often shut himself in his room and repeatedly watched the Vietnam War saga “Apocalypse Now.”

“My head was still in the combat zone,” the 43-year-old said from his Manhattan home.  “When you immerse a man into a world of violence and death, then bring him back to ‘normal’ life, he feels like he’s from another planet.  And, now, everything’s supposed to be fine, everyone’s moved on, but he is still back there, in a way.”

Moverman has brought his first-hand knowledge of what he calls the emotional landscape of war to his directorial debut, “The Messenger,” now in theaters.  It is the first of the recent spate of American films about the Iraq War, including “The Hurt Locker” and “In the Valley of Elah,” by to be penned by a former soldier. 

In the quietly searing drama—which has earned excellent reviews and Oscar buzz – a wounded Iraq War veteran and a jaded Army captain pair up to work one of the most dreaded jobs in the military:  as casualty notification officers who must inform “next-of-kin” that a loved one has died.  Amidst the death calls, the tightly wound men reveal their respective psychic wounds.  Beneath his bluster and chattiness, Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), is an alcoholic, relationship-resistant, lonely mess.  And the returning veteran, Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster), seldom speaks publicly but virtually convulses with anger while isolated in his room.

Moverman identifies most with Foster’s character, specifically the disorientation the fictional Ben feels upon returning to civilian life.  “There is a ‘theater’ of the Army—macho posturing where guys learn to bury their emotions and to act in expected ways,” the director said.  “All this adds up and becomes harrowing.  Some soldiers find themselves locked up inside, which is what Ben Foster’s character is going through.  He’s had hellish experiences; he’s come out of them alive, so there’s survivor’s guilt, and also hero’s guilt, because he perceives that he has done nothing extraordinary.  And he’s drinking a lot, he’s trying to numb himself, he’s not sleeping well, he goes to the supermarket in the middle of the night, he’s listening to music as loud as he can to drown out the [psychic] noise.”

The soft-spoken Moverman is quick to add that he did not include any of his actual military experiences to the script, only the emotional ones—above all his desire to ease his way back into civilian life, in his case by moving to New York to become a filmmaker.  “Much of ‘The Messenger’ is about someone who has been traumatized but who is actively trying to get back to a place where he can connect and function – ironically through casualty notification.”

The idea for the film emerged several years ago, as Moverman and “The Messenger’s” co-writer, Alessandro Camon discussed a newspaper story about a casualty notifications officer and realized the process could provide a dramatic way into a story about the unseen consequences of war.  Unseen to Americans, that is.

“Because the Israel Defense Forces is a people’s army, you grow up with images of your father putting on his uniform for reserve duty, and, in my case, my dad leaving to fight in the Yom Kippur War,” Moverman said.  “I also grew up grow up seeing and hearing about the flip side of that:  the casualty notification team who would knock on your door when a loved one had died.”

Moverman seems loathe to discuss details of his own military service, which occurred from 1984 to 1988 and included the first Intifada.  He alternately dismisses his experiences by saying they were not that interesting while hinting that they were, in fact, deeply disturbing and life-altering. 

Yet it was while patrolling in Hebron one day in 1985 that Moverman received what would turn out to be his big break into the American film business.  Because he had lived in the United States with his family as a teenager, the young Israeli spoke good English, and so was asked by his sergeant to stop a tourist who had emerged from a taxi carrying a video camera.  When Moverman told the visitor he could not shoot in the military zone, the enraged tourist, a documentarian, began screaming and denouncing the occupation.

“I told him I agreed with many of his views, but I was a soldier, and this was what I was sent to do – even though I would have loved to help him, because I was interested in film,” the director recalled. “I think that disarmed him; we began talking, and he gave me his business card.”  When Moverman moved to New York to study cinema at Brooklyn College in the fall of 1988, the documentarian helped him get a job working with direct cinema legend Al Maysles. 

Moverman went on to make a name for himself as a writer or co-writer on films such as Todd Haynes’s “I’m Not There,” “Jesus’ Son” and “Married Life.” 

While scripting “The Messenger,” he researched the United States’s casualty notification process, which was quite different from the one he remembered from Israel.  The IDF team, he said, consists of four service men, a psychiatrist and a physician:  “People do faint or have heart attacks,” he explained of the need for a medical doctor.  The U.S. process, he learned, is sparer:  Just two officers, a scripted speech from the secretary of the Army, the facts of death, and word that another officer will follow up with the family.  “Some people perceive this to be rather cold, but I think the intention is to break the news in an honorable way.”

During production on “The Messenger,” Moverman shot each of the six casualty notification scenes with a hand-held camera in one long take.  To enhance the intensity he did not allow his stars to see the actors portraying the next of kin until they actually opened the door in the sequence. 

During the 28-day shoot at Fort Dix, Moverman said, military personnel showed him extra respect because he was an Israeli veteran; Foster, meanwhile, urged him to tell his own war stories.

“[Oren] didn’t want to say he was in war, he was in an occupation,” Foster told IFC.com.  “He’s a really humble guy, but he understands the mindset of a warrior.  It’s pretty basic. You’re horny all the time, you’re worrying about who’s f———your girlfriend, you want to shoot something, you’re bored, you’re terrified.  Getting back to life with people who don’t share the same experiential vocabulary can be very isolating.”

The conversations proved illuminating for Moverman.

“For some reason I had been able to separate the fact that I’ve served in the military from the fact that I was making this kind of film, which probably says a lot about my lack of self-awareness” he said.  “But Ben asked me a lot of questions and the more I spoke the more I found connections to the character, which moved this project to a place where I was even more personally invested.”

‘The Messenger opens Friday, November 20, 2009

Courage Under Fire

Mort Wolk hadn’t slept a wink in two days. The invasion had been called off the day before due to bad weather, but Wolk had been on edge and too busy to rest. It was 4 a.m., and his plane was over Nazi-held Normandy. The only Jew and the only enlisted man on board, Wolk was part of Task Force A, a group of 40 paratroopers that had four hours to establish and secure a command post for the D-Day invasion.

“I thought to myself, ‘Well, God, this is it. I’m not asking any favors. I’ve lived an honest life. Whatever I have coming, I have coming,'” says Wolk, who was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division.

Wolk landed in the water just off the bank of the Douve River. Wet and cold, he made his way along the hedgerows. Armed with a rifle and a clicker that made a cricket sound, Wolk shot at anyone who didn’t respond to his cricket call in kind.

After the command post was established, Wolk found a vantage point and watched the invasion.During World War II, Jewish participation in the military was greater than that of the general population. Yet Jewish veterans, who, like Wolk, served courageously, continue to fight an uphill battle against the unfounded anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews haven’t served their country.

In reality, Jewish involvement in the American military dates back to 1654, when Asser Levy, one of the original 23 Jewish settlers, demanded the right to stand guard at the stockade in New Amsterdam. Jews have served in every American war, from the American Revolution to the Persian Gulf War, and thousands have received combat medals.

At the dawn of the 21st century, thankfully, conditions for Jews in the military have improved. With a zero-tolerance stance for religious or racial discrimination, Jewish military personnel can finally focus on the task of being all that they can be without fear of being targets of hate.

“There’s a lot of rules and regulations,” says Paul Kahn, commander of Jewish War Veterans Post 603. “Anti-Semitism is not as bad as it was in World War II and the Korean War.”

Still, the memories of anti-Semitism during wartime run deep, especially for those who served on the front.Wolk says that his commander, a West Point man called away from a successful law practice, was anti-Semitic and specifically picked him for the Normandy invasion.

“I said, ‘Look, lieutenant, no stripes. Get a guy with stripes,'” says Wolk, who was still a private first class despite participation in three previous invasions: North Africa, Sicily and Italy. “He said, ‘You’re the best man for the job. Plus, if we get back we’ll both get stripes.’ Sure: he became a captain, and I became a corporal.”

During the Korean War, Martin Zelcer, now 73, also had an anti-Semitic experience while serving on the front.

A Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor who had lost his parents and three brothers, Zelcer had been in the United States barely a year when he was drafted.

“I was disappointed that they didn’t give me a chance to get to know the country,” he says.

Zelcer had the right to refuse induction, but his citizenship would have been jeopardized. Attached to the Army’s 24th Division, 5th Regimental Combat Team, Zelcer says that going to war on the heels of surviving the Holocaust “was not pleasant. It was out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

“I was used to hardships and suffering,” he says. “So I rolled with the punches. The American kids had a harder time than I had. They were spoon-fed, and I had gone through so much.”

While serving on the front, a Hawaiian staff sergeant took a strong dislike to Zelcer. “If he could have drowned me in a teaspoon of water, he would have,” says Zelcer. “He knew I was Jewish.”

Zelcer mentioned the situation to the company commander, who had taken an interest in his survivor past, and from then on the sergeant steered clear of him.

Vidal Cohen, 31, says that racial and religious discrimination aren’t tolerated in today’s Marine Corps. “We had one racial incident in my unit, and there was some pretty stiff punishment for the people involved.”

Cohen, an L.A. native who joined the Marine Corps out of high school, was one of many in the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines who didn’t think they were actually being shipped off to fight in the Persian Gulf War.

“Nobody really believed it until we got on the airplane,” says Cohen. “When they popped the hatch and there was Saudi Arabia, it was like, ‘Uh-oh.'”

Cohen, whose unit was responsible for retaking Kuwait City and occupying the Kuwait International Airport, thought his being Jewish in an Arab country might be a problem. The military did too. But the locals turned out to be more offended by servicewomen in T-shirts than by Members of the Tribe.

Cohen, who now works in the entertainment industry, says he became more observant as a result of participating in the Persian Gulf War. “Going to war makes you reflect,” he says.

While veterans are pleased that anti-Semitism in the military is increasingly becoming a nonissue, they would like to see a return to a time when veterans were honored for their sacrifices, especially within the Jewish community.

Kahn says that outside of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel’s annual dinner, he knows of no other synagogues that go out of their way on Veterans Day to honor those who served.

“Ever since the Vietnam War, veterans are no longer deemed as important to America’s past,” says Kahn. “It would be nice if the various synagogues would be more appreciative of the Jewish war veterans.”