Wish I Was There, by Aaron Pinkston
Cinema has dissected modern war from every conceivable angle — from brotherhood in victory to the horrors in defeat. War films have taken us through basic training, into the trenches, and back home. The perspectives of the new recruit, seasoned general, and even the enemy have been fully explored. One sector of the war genre that hasn’t been given the same amount of study is the role of the female soldier. Until recently, female characters were mostly relegated to either homeside sweethearts or are absent altogether, but with women’s roles in modern warfare expanding, this perspective has become more and more important. G.I. Jane was the first film to tackle the subject, but it is mostly remembered as the film where the star of Striptease shaved her head and did pullups. The Invisible War, a documentary about the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, doesn’t feature any combat, but focuses on how women’s changing roles in the military has created perhaps unforeseen problems that affect our soldiers for the rest of their lives. Claudia Myers’ Fort Bliss is a much different film from The Invisible War, but has the same approach of looking at the particular complications a woman faces after serving in armed conflict.
As we’ve gone through more wars, we’ve better understood how soldiers become disenfranchised with society at home. Not only do soldiers abroad miss out on the social experience while they are gone, they grow apart from their friends and families who simply can’t comprehend what they have been through. In Fort Bliss, Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) comes home after serving a long tour of duty as an army medic in Afghanistan. She left behind her young son Paul, missing out on incredibly important formative years of his life. Once she has returned, Paul barely recognizes Maggie and identifies his dad’s new wife as “mommy.”
Their fractured relationship is heartbreaking and completely specific to this situation. Maggie never stopped loving her son but she’s not naturally equipped to be a mother. Because of her traumatic experiences and emotional conditioning through her service, she reacts to her son’s confusion and tantrums with anger. From Paul’s perspective, he was emotionally stunted when his mother left and now she is practically a stranger. Their early scenes together are emotionally complex and their growing relationship offers a number of sweet and sad moments.
Women are constantly told at a young age that the most important part of their lives will be having and raising children. The bond between a mother and child is biological, but social mores have made their expectations more serious. As Maggie verbalizes in Fort Bliss, if a father leaves their child to be a breadwinner, they are being a good father, but it isn’t the same for the mother. Fort Bliss asks a particularly interesting question within its mother-soldier dynamic — should Maggie’s main concern be to serve her family or her country? Because of her complicated place in society, she really can’t win and this struggle becomes more clear in the film’s second half.
Michelle Monaghan is a smart choice for this role. She is physically tough enough to be believable in the wartime and training sequences and emotionally tough enough to handle the character’s difficult readjustment in society. Monaghan’s best quality as a woman-next-door type is also utilized really well. She can be both exceptional and vulnerable. This isn’t a dynamic performance, but she hits the right emotional marks while giving us a lived-in character.
Fort Bliss is at its best in small scenes dealing with its core relationship. As the film expands to cover more ground with Maggie’s temporary position as a staff sergeant at her home base and a romantic relationship she begins to have with a mechanic, the film feels much less original and resonant. Fortunately, it never completely loses focus, with most of its dramatic moments implicating Maggie’s connection to Paul. Altogether, Fort Bliss is an important spin on the soldier-came-home war subgenre and a very personal look at the ways war can pull us apart.