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'Home of the Brave'

As they near the end of their yearlong tour in Iraq, a group of National Guard soldiers from Spokane, Wash., banter cynically, and one compares the region to a "big pot of …. The more you stir it, the more it smells."

"Home of the Brave" promises home truths about the war in Iraq, and it isn't long before the air turns foul. Just after word of their homebound flight comes through, the soldiers are called out on a final mission, an escort run that turns into a bloody ambush. In other words, no sooner has the movie announced its pretensions to gritty realism than it hauls out the hoariest irony in the screenwriting handbook. The soldier who waxes lyrical about what he'll do when he gets home is as doomed as a movie cop who has just announced his retirement.

Touted as the first fiction feature to address the Iraq War, "Home of the Brave" is unfailingly earnest in its desire to generate sympathy for the conflict's returning veterans. But the movie, directed by veteran producer Irwin Winkler, who shares story credit with screenwriter Mark Friedman, so often falls back on stock situations and familiar tropes that it rarely addresses the specifics of the current conflict. Even when it's treading virgin territory, "Home" feels awfully familiar.

The victims of fate and contrivance, the Guard soldiers return to Spokane in rocky shape. Tommy (Brian Presley) cannot forget watching his best friend die, while Jamal (Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent) lives with the memory of the innocent Iraqi woman he gunned down in a firefight. Will (Samuel L. Jackson), a combat medic, drowns his traumas in alcohol, lashing out at his wife and pacifist son. Vanessa (Jessica Biel) struggles with her new prosthetic arm, as well as the fact that the boyfriend she has returned home to can no longer look her in the eye.

Although they barely knew each other in Iraq, the soldiers find they have more in common with each other than their sympathetic but uncomprehending friends and families. Visiting a movie theater to escape from her troubles, Vanessa recognizes Tommy working in the ticket booth (he came home expecting to resume his old job at a gun shop, but his former boss has illegally failed to hold his job for him, and Tommy is too disheartened to press his grievance). The two combat veterans sneak off for a private moment, but rather than swap war stories, they compare notes on anti-depressants, which they're apparently taking by the handful. Among the movie's more overtly dramatic set pieces, this brief exchange stands out for its quiet truthfulness.

"Home of the Brave's" evident inspiration is William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives," which dramatized the bittersweet homecomings of three World War II veterans. Winkler is timid about suggesting culprits for his soldiers' malaise. The closest he comes is having a desperate Jamal rail against the paperwork he has to fill out to get proper psychiatric counseling. Wary of offending either the left or right, "Home of the Brave" blandly plays it safe. War is hell, but what can you do?

The movie's mild-mannerness is especially disappointing when compared with such documentaries as "The War Tapes" and the excellent "Home Front," vivid and incisive explorations of post-Iraq anger and disillusionment that have gone largely unseen by a disinterested public. If Americans are suffering from Iraq fatigue, "Home of the Brave" will do little to rouse them.

MPAA rating: R for war violence and language.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Exclusively at Pacific's Arclight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Ave.) (323) 464-4226; AMC Century City, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd. (inside Westfield mall) (310) 289-4AMC.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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