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‘Fort Bliss’ is a favorite with military audiences and deserving of wider success

Claudia Myers on the set of “Fort Bliss.” (Courtesy Claudia Myers)

“Fort Bliss,” an absorbing, atmospheric drama starring Michelle Monaghan as an Army medic trying to balance a high-stakes military career and similarly challenging family life, has the unmistakable ring of immediacy: It takes place on the real-life El Paso, Tex., base of the title, where Monaghan’s character, a tough, competent single mother named Maggie, tries to reconnect with her young son after returning from her second deployment in Afghanistan.

[Related: “Fort Bliss" gets 3-and-a-half star review]

In reality, “Fort Bliss” has been in the making for over 10 years. Myers, a Yale graduate who now teaches screenwriting and directing at American University, moved to Washington in 2002, after finishing film school at Columbia. One of her first gigs was writing and directing an interactive training film for the Army that was ultimately shot at Fort Bliss. Myers continued to make films for and about the military – including documentaries about the history of women in the armed services, and recovery from multiple traumatic injuries – all the while talking to service members and veterans about their experiences.

“Maggie is a composite of many people I met,” Myers said in a recent telephone conversation, “not just medics, and not just women.” Indeed, “Fort Bliss” is full of the kind of quietly observant detail that has made it a favorite among military audiences (the film won first prize at this year’s G.I. Film Festival and received an enthusiastic reception when it was screened at the Memorial for Women in Military Service for America). When Maggie first comes home, for example, she sleeps on the floor, unused to such luxuries as mattresses and soft sheets. When she takes her five-year-old son to day care, it’s the middle of the night; the center is outfitted with beds so the children can continue sleeping until the morning.

“Given how early their day starts, what that means is that when you have children, if you report before sunrise, you have to drop your child off while they’re still sleeping,” Myers explains. “Those are just the certain realities of the military lifestyle that I wanted to show, to represent a more complete picture.” Most military-themed movies that come from Hollywood, she notes, either glorify or demonize soldiers on the ground. “There’s very little gray.” (In large part because “Fort Bliss” is so nuanced in its depiction of military life, the U.S. Army allowed Myers to film on the real-life base, and provided technical and material assistance in the production.)

Although “Fort Bliss” features a number of flashbacks to Maggie’s tour of duty in Afghanistan, it’s really an old-fashioned, emotionally affecting family drama – think “Kramer vs. Kramer” meets “The Best Years of Our Lives” thrown in for good measure. Because Maggie’s tensions and little triumphs with her little boy are so universal, “Fort Bliss” has resonated just as strongly with civilians as with military personnel. “I think Maggie’s the ultimate working mom,” Myers says – albeit one who can remove live ammunition from a soldier’s abdomen in near-dark conditions and knows her way around the Army’s own ordnance.

In fact, both the civilian and military communities came together to lobby to bring “Fort Bliss” to Washington theaters: After receiving dozens of phone calls and e-mails from viewers who saw the film at military events and at last weekend’s Talk Cinema screening in Bethesda, the West End Cinema booked the film for at least one week – more, if it proves to be a hit. “It was the perfect storm,” Myers says of the campaign to bring “Fort Bliss” to D.C. “Now I just hope people go.”

“Fort Bliss” is showing in Washington at West End Cinema. Contains profanity, war violence, sexuality and adult themes. 109 minutes. Unrated.