WWII continues to be rich dramatic territory for filmmakers for a number of reasons, not only because it’s one of the most important events in modern history, but also due to the many avenues from which those years can be viewed. But writer and co-director Kate Connor‘s debut feature “Fort McCoy” is an example of what happens when you try to shoehorn as many topics and themes from WWII as you can into one movie. Overstuffed yet trite and empty, “Fort McCoy” attempts to mix heavy drama, slapstick comedy and romance all in the wrappings of a coming of age tale set in the summer of 1944, but flounders on all fronts, resulting in a picture that offers a rather naive and simplistic view of the murky territory between good and evil.
It’s hard to really give the movie a logline, as there’s not so much a single defined plot, but rather many underdeveloped subplots strung together rather hapharzardly (and sometimes illogically) in a movie that ambles along with little energy. And in case it matters, it’s based on Connor’s grandmother’s true story. Occasionally told from the point of view of the nine year-old Gertie Stern (Gara Lonning), the film is set on a Wisconsin army base and POW camp where her father Frank (Eric Stoltz) — who is deemed unfit for the Army because of a heart murmur — can do something for the war effort, namely work as a barber. And it’s from here where many plot threads and themes spin off. Among them…
Gerti’s mother and Frank’s wife Ruby (played by Connor) struggles with living so close to POWs (who bafflingly do field work literally just over a regular fence, steps from their front porch), fading feelings for her husband and worries about her brother overseas. Ruby’s niece Anna (Lyndsy Fonseca) works at the base as well, and falls for the returning soldier Sam who is haunted by what he saw on the battlefield, and the by United States’ failure to do more for the Jews in Europe. Then there’s Texas Slim (Johnny Pacar), a plucky new recruit who takes up with the voluptuous Delilah (Margot Farley), who the war has made a widow. And oh yeah, there’s Gertie herself, who begins a fledgling friendship with Heinreich (Josh Zabel), a boy her age who is a POW (it should be said that these may be the most poorly-guarded POWs ever put on camera). And I almost forgot, there’s also an SS officer as well, whose evil may run even deeper than the Nazi uniform he wears. (Seymour Cassel also pops up in a throwaway role as a priest for some reason and Camryn Manheim lurks in the background in another barely fleshed out role).
So needless to say, there is a lot of ground to cover, but Connor and co-director Michael Worth attempt to create an ensemble piece when instead stripping away some of these ineffective extra threads, and more narrowly focusing the story, would’ve done a world of wonder. Matters aren’t helped by an aesthetic that chooses honey-hued camerawork that runs jarringly counter to the serious stuff going on throughout the movie. Interfaith relationships, young marriage, PTSD, abuse, masculinity defined by action — these are all challenging subjects worthy of their own space to breathe, but “Fort McCoy” sells them short far too often. Not only for the lack of time given to these characters, but also from a Hallmark card approach to the film overall. “Fort McCoy” may have been inspired by Connor’s grandmother, but it seems it was made for her grandmother (or grandmothers in general). There is a softness here that doesn’t match the dramatic tones of the picture, and it nearly could be a PG Disney movie if not for a handful of slightly disquieting images and scenes.
There is no doubt an earnestness in intent with “Fort McCoy,” and Connor is eager to share what was surely a story passed down and discussed more than once around the family dinner table. And while all these things likely made a lively and moving yarn among the Connor household, something got lost in the translation to the big screen. We simply don’t spend enough time with these characters to get invested in their arcs, which are often resolved before they even begin (not to mention that there are two scenes in which women voicing their concerns are quickly silenced by a passionate kiss, thus smothering any moments to really root into the thornier aspects of the narrative). When certain characters die, move or face their darkest demons, the emotional heft that should be there doesn’t come with it.
The actors do what they can with the material (Fonseca comes off best, both charming and lovely, posessing a screen presence that should see her moving onto bigger and better things) but simply aren’t served by a script that finds their characters turning on a dime, often without a clear reason. Wrapping up in a schmaltzy ending that combines a wedding with a hero’s return, it’s indicative of the film’s contrived approach, whern honesty and realism would have gone so much further. Simply put, “Fort McCoy” isn’t the Real McCoy. [D]