Like everyone else in Irwin Winkler's beyond-earnest weepy film, homeboy hurts and means it; the film is as sincere as a three-legged puppy. Less Prestige Picture du jour than Movie of the Week, Home of the Brave is visually and psychologically scaled for small, intimate, predictable effects. The heart is very much in the right place, but did it have to be placed so far out on the sleeve, and must it bleed so profusely? As for its mind, it's not so much that the script by first-timer Mark Friedman has nothing new to say, which it doesn't, but that Winkler's emotional and technical resources are so middling that he settles for it, leaving cast and crew to glide through bromides and coast along on the facile and formulaic.
Brian Presley plays Tommy, a pretty-boy grunt in a National Guard unit and firsthand witness to the death of a friend when a humanitarian mission goes awry in Al Hayy, Iraq (Morocco). One minute, it's all Arab boys with lollipops, the next a barrage of sniper fire, grenades, and booby-trapped corpses. War is hell! And ain't it exciting?
Nearby, Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel) narrowly escapes shredding by a roadside bomb, managing to crawl from her wrecked jeep with the help of medic Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) I'm sick of these motherfucking IEDs in this motherfucking war! Price will lose a hand. Marsh will hit the bottle.
Star-spangled to death, all are demobilized home to Spokane, Washington, where the film tracks their hard road back to civilian life, arranging for crossed paths and big scenes. Tommy attends a counseling group frequented by Jamal, worked up in relentless Angry Black Man mode, and later runs into Vanessa at the multiplex where he's taken a job at the box office. The futility of the setting selling spectacle to ambivalent civilians is nicely played against their plaintive bond and talk of shared medications.
Winkler's best material plays out chez Marsh, where two more clichés the rebellious son (Sam Jones III) and the tough-yet-tender wife (Victoria Rowell) approach genuine feeling. There's a fine scene in which Rowell bitch-slaps her spouse out of a self-pitying stupor and an even better one in which father defends son's right to wear a "Buck Fush" T-shirt in class. Might as well have read "Impeach Nixon." For all its relevance to the state of the nation, Home of the Brave is convinced it's saying something urgent but offers no fresh insight into postwar survival.
An obvious failure, but an honorable one. Blunt as it is, the movie avoids partisan grandstanding and easy irony; I much prefer its simple heart to the exploitative cynicism of an embarrassment like Blood Diamond. The decision to hew closely to the texture of daily life is the right one; there's just no texture to speak of. Biel brings a lot to her role, but her role gives little back: the pangs of a sports enthusiast who now has trouble picking up a soccer ball, etc.
Presley, miscast, is given the film's final and most complex gesture. Bounced from job to job, irrevocably displaced, Tommy decides to reenlist. Neither heroic nor despairing, his concluding monologue, in the form of a letter home, poses the first real challenge to the audience. Too little too late, Home of the Brave earns one tough idea in spite of itself.