One of the most indelible moments in “The Hurt Locker” was a scene in which a bomb technician played by Jeremy Renner returned from Iraq to his American home town, where he visited a supermarket cereal aisle. Paralyzed by the sheer vastness of it, he stood there staring, utterly dislocated and alienated from the culture he’d so recently risked his life defending.
Writer-director Claudia Myers has made an entire movie of that moment with “Fort Bliss,” an absorbing, uncannily on-point portrait of an Army medic navigating the transition from her high-stakes job — including two tours in Afghanistan — to a complicated domestic life.
Gracefully portrayed by Michelle Monaghan in an impressive breakout performance, Maggie Swann is tough, smart and coolly competent, even when removing a piece of live ammunition from a soldier’s abdomen. But when she returns to Fort Bliss — the El Paso military base that plays itself here — she doesn’t get the hero’s welcome of her peers. Instead, her resentful ex-husband, played by Ron Livingston, delivers an awkward hug hello before taking her to reunite with their 5-year-old son, Paul, who sees Maggie as little more than a stranger.
Myers has discovered a phenomenally gifted young actor named Oakes Fegley to play Paul, who breaks into an enraged tantrum when Maggie takes him to live with her. But even though the beleaguered Maggie is a sympathetic figure, she’s far from perfect: She clumsily mishandles her reunification with the little boy, using her most intimidating command presence to bully him into compliance.
Myers, a Washington-based filmmaker who has worked extensively with the military making documentaries and interactive videos, has clearly done her homework, seeding “Fort Bliss” with vivid details of life on the base, from bleary-eyed arrivals at a day care facility while it’s still nighttime to Maggie’s inability to sleep in a normal bed. Her most observant flourishes are to be found in the brief exchanges that illuminate the difficulties of service members returning to “a life that doesn’t want you in it.”
In many ways, “Fort Bliss” plays like a dramatized version of “Soldier Girls,” Helen Thorpe’s similarly sensitive chronicle of female National Guard members and their wartime experiences. Like that book, “Fort Bliss” delves into the professionalism, pride and inescapable tensions that animate women’s lives in the military, including sexual harassment, here depicted with exceptional nuance.
At its core, though, “Fort Bliss” is less a war picture than a compassionate, deeply engaging portrayal of one woman’s struggle with the age-old conundrum of balancing work and family. As much drama as there is to be found in Maggie’s flashbacks to wartime duty, as well as her incipient romance with a dreamy mechanic (Manolo Cardona) and the specter of future redeployment, the most galvanizing moments center on the incremental steps she and Paul take toward mutual trust.
It’s not nation-building, but the stakes are just as high. In Myers’s capable hands, and with a powerful, vanity-free performance by Monaghan, “Fort Bliss” joins “Coming Home” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” as a movie deeply in sync, not just with the military characters it depicts, but also with the civilian world that awaits them with such confoundingly mixed messages.
★ ★ ★ ½
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains profanity, war violence, sexuality and adult themes.