By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Not many first-time directors get the opening night slot at any film festival. Oren Moverman is an exception, with his debut, The Messenger, selected to kick off the 11th annual Sarasota Film Festival.
The Messenger stars Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as Iraq War veterans assigned to stateside duty as bearers of tragic news. They notify civilian survivors of soldiers killed in combat, usually within 24 hours of their deaths. The movie was previously showcased at the Sundance and Berlin festivals, with mixed response.
Moverman, 42, is a former journalist and Israeli Army officer who previously co-authored screenplays for the Bob Dylan biography I'm Not There and the art house favorites Jesus' Son and Married Life. He'll attend Friday's screening with Harrelson and Foster — plus nearly 400 members of the armed forces invited by the festival.
In an e-mail interview, Moverman discussed how The Messenger fits in with the recent cycle of Iraq war-related films, its chance of connecting with audiences, and facing an audience Friday with a vested interest in the film's theme.
How do you compare The Messenger with films like Stop-Loss, The Lucky Ones and In the Valley of Elah?
Honestly, I don't think there's a need to do that. I think each one of these films stands on its own, despite the desire to bunch them together. This is a film about the people who live with the consequences of war, the people notifying and being notified — soldiers, families, us. It could be any war. It will work for the next one.
It's a film about grief and getting back to life after encountering that grief, and so it's really about something we all face, not just soldiers; dealing with the shock of losing a loved one and then finding the grace, the love, the friendships that help you stay alive yourself.
Any worries after those other Iraq War movies were largely ignored by audiences?
These are the sort of things we can't worry about. I think audiences will come if we can convince them that the film is an emotional experience worth going through.
It's not a tragedy, there's a lot of humor in it. It's a portrait of a time and a place but it is truly touching a universal theme we are always dealing with. We just have to represent it honestly to audiences and see what happens.
How do you think those soldiers at Friday's screening will react to a theme they never want to face in reality?
We hope that the film can become part of a dialogue about how we deal with soldiers on the home front, about the subculture of the military and how conveniently it is mostly ignored by the mainstream. Clearly, inviting soldiers into this dialogue is a really important move, and the festival in Sarasota should take the credit for being the first to do so. It's a hell of a thing to do.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.