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Home of the Brave, the latest Hollywood drama from Israeli ex-pat producers Avi Lerner and Danny Dimbort, illustrates an odd rule of cinema: that it's possible both to like a movie and not care for either its beginning or its end.
The movie, which opened last week's Eilat International Film Festival, is the first to focus on the current Iraq war and how US veterans are greeted when they return home from the conflict.
In contrast to recent dramas like Jarhead and World Trade Center, Home of the Brave rejects the safe narrative remove of earlier wars and the simple, obvious heroism that emerged in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.
But while the film demonstrates its own touches of bravery merely by tackling such a loaded subject, it also concludes its overlapping storylines too neatly, too reassuringly, to make a real statement about the difficulties of living in and fighting for a country embroiled in an unpopular war of its own making.
The film opens - annoyingly and unnecessarily - with its central team of US soldiers learning they're finally being sent home, months after their initial service was extended. The set-up is an almost offensively obvious emotional ploy - a dust particle in a distant galaxy would know something's going to prevent the group's peaceful homecoming from Iraq.
The good news, then, is that Home of the Brave gets back on track relatively quickly, delivering a startling burst of violence and surprise in the ensuing ambush scene. A humanitarian convoy led by the soldiers gets stalled behind a slow-moving truck on its way to al-Hay, and the film skillfully captures the soldiers' dawning sense of danger without belaboring the acute, lethal terror of the moment. The explosions and subsequent battle scenes feel as realistically bloody as they look, and a shivery sense of recognition is almost sure to run through the veins of Israelis watching the film's vivid house-to-house clashes. Cast members who looked sure to appear in the movie's closing scenes die instead in ghastly ways, as does a veiled Iraqi woman unlucky enough simply to turn the wrong corner at the wrong time.
The film narrows its focus once the remaining soldiers have returned home to Washington state, following the parallel but overlapping storylines of Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson), an army surgeon scarred by what he's seen in the battlefield operating room; Tommy Yates (Brian Presley), a small-town golden boy dubbed "Tommy Daydream" by his fellow soldiers; and Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel), a single mother who's returned to work as a gym teacher after losing her arm and nearly her life in a roadside bombing.
Also in the vicinity is Jamal Aiken (Curtis Jackson), an embittered former fighter torn between self-pity and rage at a country that continues to operate almost as if it isn't caught in the middle of a vicious, terrifying war beyond its borders. Jackson will be familiar to most younger moviegoers as the ultra-violent rapper 50 Cent, and while he isn't much of an actor, it's nice to see him in a project that treats bloodshed as something to be feared rather than celebrated.
The other performers generally do better, led unsurprisingly by the senior Jackson, an actor who can create an almost tangible sense of alienation simply by looking the right way at the bottom of a kitchen sink. His character's descent into a sort of semi-functional alcoholism is accompanied by battles with his rebellious, left-leaning son.
"Are you against this war because of your politics, or because I was in it?" a chastened Marsh asks, trying to be conciliatory.
"Both," the teenager says in bracing reply.
Like most of the others, this storyline occasionally borders on the trite and, like its counterparts, owes the power it accumulates to the acting with which it is delivered. After a rough start as Marsh's wife, soap opera actress Victoria Rowell gains her footing elegantly, effectively conveying the strength and emotional sophistication of a smart, caring woman looking on, initially in shock, as her husband comes apart.
The film's other top performance comes from a second surprising quarter - Biel, a 25-year-old with the lips of a bee-stung goddess and a resume still dominated by her years on Seventh Heaven, the abysmally wholesome TV drama that finally, mercifully met its end last spring. The actress convincingly evokes the fragility and anger of a soldier traumatized by the memory of losing her professional partner, and a limb, in an attack planned by adults but carried out by a child. (One line the film could have done without, however, is the character's "Who, me?" response to hearing she's pretty, a fairly ludicrous bit of screenwriting given the number of "sexiest" and "most beautiful" lists Biel has appeared on over the last few years.)
This, unfortunately, leads us to Home of the Brave's ending, a somewhat overwrought effort offering tidy little plot twists the writer, Mark Friedman, in most cases hasn't earned. The hard-driving, unsympathetic parent of one soldier suddenly finds a hidden wellspring of understanding, while elsewhere, a war-damaged fighter finds a new place in her heart for love.
The film attempts something unexpected by sending one of its key figures back to Iraq, but the scene - accompanied by a regrettable combination of soaring music and voice-over narration - ultimately highlights the movie's aversion to tough questions about the meaning of service in a war characterized by constantly shifting objectives and a long-ago discredited political leadership.
Despite its partially Israeli pedigree, Home of the Brave is, in the words of some of its Eilat viewers, just a little "too American" - a gentle pejorative referring to its excessively neat and clean closing minutes. But even with the film's comparatively weak start and finish, its center holds, making this first dramatic look at the Iraq war a rewarding if ultimately flawed gamble on the big screen..