When we see “the war at home” on screen, it’s usually burned-out, post-traumatic husks of men, dragged down by alcohol or other substance abuse, ready to flare up into unexpected rage at the slightest provocation. And while mental illness is endemic among the many problems we insist veterans should face with little if any support, life after deployment isn’t exactly a cakewalk for those who aren’t destroyed by the experience.
In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to view military service as the ultimate in demanding careers, and deployment as the most stressful business trip of all. And the working mothers trying to “have it all” with a family and a military career will find a lot to recognize in Claudia Myers’ Fort Bliss, streaming now if you can’t find it in a nearby theater.
Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) is a smart, capable army medic. She returns to Fort Bliss, in El Paso, from a 15 month tour in Afghanistan to find her ex-husband (Ron Livingston) engaged to another woman (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Worse, her 5-year-old son Paul (Oakes Fegley) barely recognizes her. Still, she takes custody — over his screaming objections.
There are a lot of so-called “strong female characters” out there, usually unflappably tough and accomplished women, coldly unemotional until the plot requires them to break down in front of the male lead. To be blunt, they’re basically written as male stereotypes plus breasts.
Maggie is not. She’s strong and excels at her job, of course, but she’s also warm and unmistakably feminine. She’s also not perfect. Taking immediate custody of Paul is almost certainly not in his best interests, and his father seems generous about allowing visitations. But Maggie isn’t exactly patient, as we see again when Paul refuses to eat what she prepares for dinner one night.
And it’s not just problems at home that Maggie has to handle. She has support from a friend she knew on deployment (Dash Mihok), but she’s reassigned under a new captain who thinks career should come before family. It’s hard for any woman to assert authority in the workplace, but even more so in the military; it doesn’t help that one of the sergeants in her medic platoon seems more than a little unbalanced (Gbenga Akinnagbe).
And then there’s the effort to get back into the dating pool. Maggie is not only an army medic and a mother, but a woman in her prime. She meets a mechanic (Manolo Cardona) who is as patient and understanding as any man can be, and yet there is still complicated fallout from a troubling incident with a fellow soldier (Pablo Schreiber).
Myers draws heavily on her experience producing training films and documentaries for the army, which brought her into close contact with plenty of women with stories like Maggie’s. She renders the composite honestly, but compassionately, and Monaghan brings her character to life.
One of the most powerful scenes in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker comes when Jeremy Renner stands in the cereal aisle of a grocery store, paralyzed by the culture shock. Fort Bliss feels at many times like a companion piece, inverting the focus by expanding on that moment. At the same time, it has as much to say about professional women outside the military as it does about Maggie’s return from deployment. Speaking to both of these stories in the same breath is Myers’ biggest achievement here.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.