Fort Bliss, a new film written and directed by Claudia Myers, tells the typical story of a female soldier returning from Afghanistan. In the very first scene of Fort Bliss, we see “Maggie Swann” (Michelle Monaghan) in a Helmand province, riding down a road with a number of other soldiers and when a there’s a huge explosion right in front of her. In an intense sequence, medic Maggie tends to an injured soldier, using extreme measures under dangerous circumstances with tremendous cool and competence. We don’t know whether the soldier lives or dies because it’s toward the end of her deployment, with the officer in command saluting Maggie saying, “You really did a great job. If he lives, it will be because you saved him.” We’re to gather that Maggie is an incredibly competent person, cool under fire with the ability to focus and do an excellent job.
The next scene shows Maggie back at Fort Bliss in Texas. When she and other soldiers arrive at the El Paso airport, all the wives and the kids are there with balloons and flowers, running up to their husbands, kissing them, and throwing their arms around them. While all the little children jump up into the arms of their daddies, there’s Maggie by herself looking around and not finding anybody there for her. She walks out of the waiting room and sees her ex-husband “Richard” (Ron Livingston) comes up to her without their son. She says, “Where’s the kid?” to which Richard replies, “He didn’t want to come.” When Maggie argues that it shouldn’t have been his choice, Richard tells her that she’s been gone for a third of his life and he doesn’t remember who she is.
They go back to Richard’s house where his new, young and pregnant wife “Alma” (Emmanuelle Chriqui, who was very good in Cadillac Records) is trying to do the right thing. She’s trying to raise Richard’s son without taking on the full role of a mother, leaving space for Maggie to come back and have a relationship with him. From the son’s point of view, he’s lived with his father’s new wife for more than a year. He has been part of this family and does not want to go off with Maggie, but she insists and takes him to her apartment. It starts off with this very rough reentry of Maggie back into her life in Texas, but unlike the Linda Cardellini film Return where she’s coming off the reserves and is supposed to be going back into a civilian life, Maggie is still in the military. She’s still expected to serve as a staff sergeant, training the soldiers in her Fort Bliss unit for the next deployment. Although she’s not supposed to have another deployment for a lengthy period of time, that changes and she finds out midway through that she’s going to be redeployed in 60 days. What does she do about leaving her son who’s finally come around to getting attached to her again?
Oh, what do I say, folks? It’s another situation where I really, really wanted to like this movie. It had all the elements, but somehow when I was watching Return, the combination of the way the story was done and the way Linda Cardellini played the main role, it was from the inside and out and I really believed in her and empathized with her plight and felt her pain. But in Fort Bliss, it seemed to be the opposite way. It seemed to be from the outside in, meaning it was almost as if Claudia Myers had spent a year reading everything she could about soldiers coming back from Iraq/Afghanistan and put together a check list of all the typical things a returning female soldier encounters. Each scene seemed to come off a checklist – we have to have this, we have to have that, we have to have the sexual abuse, the scene father who’s also a vet, and the son acting out.
Michelle Monaghan is very good as Maggie, the center of the film, but every single man in the film was two-dimensional. It seemed like they all came out of boxes, even good actors like Ron Livingston who wasn’t believable or made into a three dimensional character. It’s alluded that he has a drinking problem and a nothing job, so why was she married to him in the first place? You never really believe him or get much sense of him as a character. John Savage plays the father, who of course was in the Deer Hunter, so there’s some Vietnam residence of him having been in that film. The wheelchair-bound father only has one scene on the phone with his daughter and never becomes a real character. Then Maggie has a love object played by Manolo Cardona, falling in love with some guy who she has a meet cute with while getting her car repaired. He’s this perfect guy who just happens be there, ready to repair her car, single, and as handsome as could be. Again, he was again not believable. I mean what’s this gorgeous hunk just sitting waiting in this service station for her to just tootle by some day with her broken car?
I really wanted to like it, but I felt manipulated, like it was a checklist movie that was outside in and not inside out. It had good intentions and good acting; I wanted to be moved and I was by the end. But everything in the middle…
Review © Jan Lisa Huttner (9/26/14)
Photo: Michelle Monaghan as U.S. soldier “Maggie Swann”
Q: Does Fort Bliss pass the Bechdel Test?
It does not pass the Bechdel Test. She never talks to another women. Of course the ex-husband’s wife is there, but they never have a real conversation. She doesn’t seem to have a girlfriend, mother, or sister – it’s all checklist conversations with her father, ex-husband, boyfriend, son, military buddy, and her comrade with the guy she has the sexual issues with. So it’s one-on-one-on-one-on-one-on-one scenes of Maggie with these different men and there’s not another women in her entire world, which now that I think about it is also completely unbelievable.