‘Fort Bliss’ Brutally Portrays Coming Home From War
Writer-director Claudia Myers makes the most thoughtful veterans’ film I’ve seen
Sgt. Maggie Swann—played by Michelle Monaghan—returns to the home of her ex-husband. She’s upset. She’s just spent 15 months in Afghanistan and wants to reconnect with her son.
But her child no longer knows who she is. Their first night together is miserable. It’s hard to come back after that long a separation and pick up where she left off. Swann wants to know why her child is now so difficult.
Richard, her ex-husband, is not sympathetic. “You’ve been gone a third of his life,” he says. “What do you expect?”
“You don’t think I can take care of him?” Swann fires back.
“I think if you wanted to take care of him, you wouldn’t have stayed in the Army.”
This is Fort Bliss, the new film from writer-director Claudia Myers. In the movie, Swann must navigate the politics of Army life, the ire of her ex-husband—played masterfully by Ron Livingston—and the horror of her combat experiences.
Myers’s movie navigates the complexities and pain of soldiers returning home better than any film I’ve seen.
Critics have written much about The Hurt Locker’s scenes that take place within the United States. Jeremy Renner walks the aisles of a supermarket, marveling over all the cereal choices. He has trouble connecting with his son.
But The Hurt Locker was a vile film, and an insult to veterans. It won Oscars and made a ton of money. Veterans hated it. Fort Bliss isn’t going to win any Oscars or make a ton of money, but it’s a far better movie. It’s the respectful, meditative and thoughtful film that The Hurt Locker isn’t.
“The audience reaction to the film has been tremendous,” Myers told me via email. She says military and civilian audiences have told her they empathize with Swann as a woman trying to pursue a career and raise a family. Myers has screened Fort Bliss twice for military audiences. Both times, the movie received a standing ovation.
“That was one of the most gratifying moments of my career,” she wrote.
Fort Bliss neither glorifies nor reviles the military. It’s a more honest portrayal. There are no good or bad people, just good and bad decisions.
“I don’t pass judgement on Swann,” Myers told me. “I wanted to present a situation without easy answers. Everyone in their own way is trying to do the best they can under difficult circumstances. My goal is to raise questions, not attempt to answer them.”
Myers wrote the script over the course of five years while she was shooting documentaries and training films for the military. She told me that Swann “was not based on any one person, but was a composite of the soldiers and veterans I met and the experiences they shared with me.”
It shows. Swann is a well-realized, multidimensional character. The choices she makes at work are life and death. The decisions she makes at home have the potential to ruin the life of her young son.
Swann sometimes doesn’t handle those decisions well. “I knew she would be complicated because her experience is complicated,” Myers said. “I never wanted to make her perfect.”
Some audiences watching will find her despicable. She’s a fantastic soldier, finding the fulfillment at work she can’t seem to find at home. When confronted with the difficulties of raising her son, she often falls back on her military training.
Her son is five. Naturally, it doesn’t go well.
She’s good at her job. She understands it. She likes it. Her family doesn’t understand. More than that, they resent her.
The movie could have easily become a polemic—an attack on the modern American soldier. Swann isn’t always sympathetic, but Myers takes pains to give the full context of every awful decision.
Ron Livingston’s Richard is the voice of every family left at home when a soldier goes to war. He calls Swann on her bullshit and forces her to confront the consequences of her choices. It would be easy to hate him, but he never asks the impossible of Swann, just that she do what’s right for their son.
The movie is refreshing. So often the films of the war on terror devolve to hero worship. Basically, the kind of movies audiences will forget about in 10 years or look back on as schlock.
But Fort Bliss has complicated characters. They’re dealing with real-life situations and their solutions feel real—there’s no easy solutions. No Hollywood-style dramatics delivering neat little endings.
Fort Bliss tackles a lot of the major problems faced by today’s military—PTSD, sexual assault and the work-life balance. It does so without ever feeling ham-fisted or cheesy.
“I want us to ask ourselves if we judge Maggie Swann differently because she is a woman faced with these choices,” Myers told me.
Some might. Regardless of her gender, she’s a soldier and a parent. Men have run away from their families for generations. Some do so by burying themselves in work or running off to war. Woman can do the same thing, and Swann’s choices aren’t any more or less deplorable on the account of her gender.
Not everyone will agree with me. But the beauty of this film is that it has the potential to start a better conversation.