Editorial Column: These Films Aren’t Exactly War Movies

Providence Journal

August 6, 2008 – You won’t see war anywhere else the way you see it at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

In the last few years, the festival has become a showcase for thoughtful examinations of what war does to people and how they deal with it. It makes room for films that are edgy and sometimes uncomfortable. At a time of maddening public disregard for the wars we wage, the festival offers a rich mix of reminders of how messy and noble and lonely and life- changing war inevitably becomes.

On this week’s schedule in this statewide movie splurge is The Road Home. It follows four veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan for almost four years. All are amputees and all end up competing in the New York City Marathon as part of that road home. It will be shown Friday at 4:30 p.m. in the Bell Street Chapel.

In the documentary Leave No Soldier, two groups of veterans, Rolling Thunder and Veterans For Peace, are shown coming from different political points of view but sharing a determination that one generation of veterans never abandon another. It will be shown today at 1 p.m. in the Columbus Theater Arts Center.

In Baghdad Diary, the Iraq war is seen through the eyes of an Iraqi family and an American TV reporter embedded with the Army. It will be shown Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Columbus Theater Arts Center.

Then there’s Happy New Year. It is 15 minutes long and very unsettling.

Lorrel Manning, the writer and director, admits to asking himself the question “are people going to hate us?” before making it.

But Manning and Michael Cuomo, the producer of the film and one of its stars, went ahead with the project for all kinds of reasons. They went ahead with it because of the horrible conditions exposed at Walter Reed Army Hospital. They went ahead with it because they believe the wars are “wars of luxury” too easily turned off. They went ahead with it because of the hard stories of veterans never quite making it all the way home.

“You don’t hear about the guys who don’t make it,” says Cuomo.

Happy New Year is about suicide, the ugly little secret of our ongoing wars that is just starting to become part of the discussion about the wars’ true costs.

It is shot in a dreary room of a veterans hospital. The Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration is on TV, watched by a veteran lying in bed, his left leg long gone, the left side of his face horribly burned. Cuomo plays the amputee. During a phone interview from New York last week, he explained that his leg was actually concealed in the mattress. He was very stiff after four or five hours of shooting.

A war buddy comes to visit. He pulls two beers from a small bag. The men talk the easy talk of friends and the hard talk of war.

“It’s your fault I’m here.”

“It was an accident.”

“You said that building was clear, remember?”

That might be all there is. This film might be just a brief look at two friends from the war, stuck in a hospital room as much of the world celebrates a meaningless tick of the clock. But then the visitor puts a syringe on a table. You hope that it won’t be used. You hope that the most hopeless option of all is rejected.

Michael Cuomo says he even wanted to stop the suicide.

But what makes this 15 minutes so good is that, in the last seconds, we can understand why that veteran in the hospital bed would consider ending his life.

Happy New Year will be shown Saturday night at 7 at the Cable Car Cinema.

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