Sunday, April 11, 2010

Death protocols

When Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery learns of his new assignment, his stony expression cracks like poorly struck granite.

Montgomery, played by Ben Foster in "The Messenger" opening January 1 at Salem Cinema, is to become part of a casualty notification team (CNT), the men and women dispatched to notify families of active duty soldiers when they die.

That's their duty, "but the job is about something else," says Capt. Tony Stone, Montgomery's team partner played by Woody Harrelson, recently nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in the film.

"We're all ill-equipped to deal with sudden death," said Oren Moverman, director and co-writer of the film.

Montgomery has just returned from the war in Iraq and is recovering from injuries after being attacked while on patrol. As he struggles to return to normal life, he's forced to confront the realities of life for those who are left behind while not deviating from the script prepared by his superiors.

When he notifies Olivia Pitterson that her husband has died, she has a reaction that surprises both men on the team and intrigues Montgomery so much that he makes contact with her after the notification.

The structure of casualty notification team protocols provides a framework for exploring the moment of the news from a nearly objective point of view. While the the team members are unlikely to have encountered either the dead soldier or their family, it doesn't weaken the impact.

"It's hard to understand from the outside, but ultimately they think of each other as family," said Moverman. "It's very, very personal in that way."

The war in Iraq is the backdrop for the film, but Moverman made choices in portraying the notifications that remove all vestiges of the inherent political nature of deaths that result from the war.

He did not allow Foster and Harrelson to commiserate with the actors playing the dead soldiers' families before shooting each notification scene.

"I encouraged them to not worry about the camera and to go off text if they needed to. I also wanted to keep [Foster and Harrelson] off guard," Moverman said.

Moverman met with the actors playing the soldiers' families before each scene was shot and developed a backstory for the family. Those meetings led to intense moments of their own.

"During the course of one meeting the two actors became a couple; they started arguing over whose fault it was that their son was mad at them," Moverman said.

Another scene was expanded from a 20-second section of the script to a two-minute segment on the screen because Moverman felt the actor had so much to give. Notification sequences are filmed with handheld cameras to draw the audience into the scene.

"We wanted the audience to be able to read themselves into the scene, because most of us have had experiences like it before. The camera work is intended to help them find their place," Moverman said.

In preparation for the film, Moverman and the actors visited the a casualty notification center in Arlington, Virginia. The staff at the site coordinate all death notifications for the Army throughout the country.

"There's a board where all the names pop up and the notifications are tracked as they happen," Moverman said. "It's sort of the only place in the military where there are no secrets."

Moverman's experiences as a paratrooper in the Israeli Army also informed the way he approached the material.

"Coming back from Lebanon - from that other planet - into regular everyday life in Israel was rattling," said Moverman. "To be in that spot where no one around really seems to understand what's happened and you're expected to move on - that's something I understood."

The Messenger
is a testament to just how deep that understanding runs.

No comments:

Post a Comment