At the very least, “Home of the Brave” is one for the history books: the first major fiction film about the Iraq War and its effect on those fighting it. Updating “The Best Years of Our Lives” before conflict has reached an end (if there ever is one), this too-earnest drama seeks to realistically portray returning wartime soldiers adjusting to civilian and family life and struggling to overcome physical and mental trauma. But Irwin Winkler, whose recent directorial credits include “The Net” and “De-Lovely“—you’re already cringing, aren’t you?—is no William Wyler, and “Home of the Brave” turns out to be nothing but good intentions, a film containing a sizable heart, but not much of a brain.
Indeed, if there’s anything ticking inside the film’s human-interest-story cranium, it’s been badly damaged: first-time screenwriter Mark Friedman pens grossly platitudinous dialogue, whether in paeans to the troops or antiwar talking points; actors Jessica Biel, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Presley, and, worst of all, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson flounder in their attempts to substantiate Hilton-thin roles; Stephen Endelman‘s sappy score adds immeasurably to the pain, acoustic guitar pluck by acoustic guitar pluck; and Winkler destroys any salvageable action with completely unacceptable amateurish direction. For instance, when Biel’s physical education teacher, a single mother who loses a hand in the film’s opening humanitarian-mission-gone-wrong scene, attempts to pick up a rolling soccer ball we receive—due to the utter contempt Winkler harbors toward the audience’s ability to make connections—a slo-mo flashback to Biel in Iraq, gracefully shooting hoops. Biel had been treated by Jackson, a doctor who lapses into alcoholism back in Spokane (from where all the National Guard characters hail), frightening his wife and alienating his antiwar teenage son; it’s the film’s best plot strand until a ridiculous Thanksgiving freak-out that culminates in a torn-off body piercing. Presley agonizes over the death of his best friend (although he owns the indignity of having to spout the “nothing makes sense anymore” line) and fails in saving conscience-ravaged 50 from a fatal PTSD-fueled hold-up, a disgustingly overdetermined scenario either racist or stupid or both.
It’s hard to forgive that low point (especially as Winkler traces 50’s decent into violence for all of five minutes of screen time), but there’s so much more to hold against the creators of “Home of the Brave,” including having Biel unbelievably overcome her multitudinous issues just by meeting a cute, sensitive guy. Presley’s reenlistment, on the other hand, may be accurate, but it nevertheless doesn’t ring true—like the movie as a whole, trite and inept filmmaking places us at a remove just when we want to get close to these people, simplistic stand-ins for much more complex actual veterans. Frustrating, since “Home of the Brave” gets the opening salvo in what will surely be Hollywood’s ongoing therapeutic working-through of all issues Iraq, vainly parsing this country’s confusing compromise to “support the troops, not (necessarily) the war.” Those looking for a film to courageously initiate a national dialogue about the subject will have to wait—“Home of the Brave” got there first, but hasn’t revealed a thing.