Thursday, October 09, 2014

Fort Bliss

FORT BLISS (Claudia Myers, 2014)

Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) enjoys and excels at her job as an Army medic. On the last day of a 15-month deployment in her second tour of Afghanistan she saves a fellow soldier, an action for which she earns a Bronze Star Medal. Coming home to Texas in FORT BLISS should be a happy occasion, but it merely introduces a different set of problems for her to confront. Her ex-husband Richard (Ron Livingston) arrives late to welcome her home and doesn’t bring their son Paul (Oakes Fegley). Not only does the five-year-old boy not want to come and see her, but he also treats Richard’s fiancĂ©e Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui) as his mother.

Although Paul continues to reject Maggie, she insists that he will be living with her now that she’s back. After a day of getting nowhere with the sullen child, Maggie tells him they’ll start over as if they have never met. Gradually Paul warms up to her, but she still deals with sleepless nights and a struggle to readjust to life outside of war zone.

FORT BLISS enriches its portrait of a servicewoman by packing in a lot of tangible details regarding the military way of life. Writer-director Claudia Myers shows how the personal and professional coexist, like the early morning drop-off spot for kids while their parents work on the base, and how the job is something never entirely left behind. Those who serve are hailed for their selflessness, but the noble commitment can often come at the price of family stability and little sympathy for attending to it. Facing a tough decision between work and family, Staff Sergeant Swann tells her commanding officer, “I love my son and I love my country, and I don’t think I should have to choose between them.” With often heartbreaking examples the pushing and pulling between these priorities is captured repeatedly.

Both men and women feel the tension between loyalty to career and obligation to those at home, but FORT BLISS identifies how the choices aren’t really the same. Society expects Maggie to sacrifice personal ambition and satisfaction for the sake of raising her son more than her male colleagues, yet she justifies her reenlistment as a means of providing for him. At a minimum it’s more acceptable for men to demonstrate their support through their jobs. Myers explores the double standard not in an accusatory manner but rather to highlight where equivalency does not exist even though it may be thought to be present.

Monaghan is terrific at playing someone who finds toughness easier to project, in part because it can mean the difference between life and death in her work. Although Maggie displays few maternal instincts, especially in the poignant moments when Paul rebuffs her, she’s not incapable of expressing them but simply in need of the kind of training that she’s devoted herself to in the army. Monaghan reveals Maggie’s inner conflict as she attempts to reconcile her experiences on the warfront that have become second nature and the domestic life that is now something of a culture shock. She attracts empathy because of how much she proves she’s trying to make the best of formidable issues she’s not entirely equipped to handle.

Grade: B

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