In the closing moments of "Happy New Year," writer-director K. Lorrel Manning's somber portrait of a despondent Iraq war veteran stuck in a ward for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, fiction gives way to an unsettling truth: After nearly two hours of a close-up look at the burgeoning death wish afflicting Staff Sgt. Cole Lewis (Michael Cuomo), an end credit notes that approximately 18 U.S. veterans commit suicide each day -- and that, between 2010 and 2011, suicide was the leading cause of death among U.S. troops. Almost exclusively unfolding in hospital rooms, with nary a battle in sight, "Happy New Year" provides a rare glimpse into the darker ramifications of war that rarely take center stage in the national dialogue. This struggle has nothing to do with political motives or tactical movements, but rather the battle to retain sanity against impossible odds.
While Manning adapted the material from his play, "Happy New Year" works particularly well in movie terms because of its ability to get intimate with Cole's plight. The first time we see him in sudden close-up, it's impossible not to fixate on his heavily scarred face. Coupled with his wheelchair-bound condition, Cole's hindrances make it clear that he faces a difficult battle to reentering society with the same confidence he maintained before the explosion that left him in a debilitated state. His lingering ego is at odds with the prospects of being forced into a locked position. Transferred from a recovery ward to a hospital for victims of post-traumatic stress, he grunts, "You put me with the crazies?"
Indeed, many of the troubled ex-soldiers Cole meets appear to have lost their minds, enabling the movie to occasionally veer into "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" territory to the detriment of an otherwise subdued character study. However, Cole remains the powerful anchor of the story, constantly attempting to reconcile his battlefield memories with the prospects of returning to a happy life.
But neither a burgeoning romance with one of the ward's nurses nor Cole's doting mother can help him out of his deep funk. He only manages to find a twinge of solace from his affable roommate (JD Williams), one of the few people in Cole's immediate surroundings capable of engaging in a sober discussion of the battlefield's fundamentally indescribable impact on his psyche. As Cole's situation grows worse, "Happy New Year" stumbles over a ponderous and sometimes overly mopey atmosphere that borders on the lethargic. However, it delivers a constantly affecting closeness with its subject matter by rooting it in the plight of its passionate lead.
Those enticed by the possibilities of Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty," which opens later this month and follows the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden, can get a sense from "Happy New Year" for the other movie's masterful ability to ground a vast network of intelligence operations in human drama. The efforts of CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) to track bin Laden's every movie take on a personal dimension that imbues the proceedings with emotional depth.
Translating post-traumatic stress for concept to disease, "Happy New Year" achieves a similar goal. Images from Iraq and Afghanistan are only briefly glimpsed when Cole suffers a sudden flashback. The filmmaker uses real footage shot by soldier-turned-video-diarist Mike Scotti, the subject of the documentary "Severe Clear," one of the great non-fiction war movies of the past decade. Scotti's images of wartime destruction go far beyond the politically correct boundaries of broadcast television, and so does the movie's tragic climax. "Happy New Year" concludes with a quote from JFK: "A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men …it remembers." Manning's ultimate achievement is a snapshot of what can happen when the country forgets.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Opening at the Quad Cinema in New York, the film may generate limited interest among the military community, which suggests it could have a sturdy life on VOD.
[Disclosure: "Happy New Year" is being distributed by SnagFilms, Indiewire's parent company.]