Home of the Brave, a new motion picture co-produced and shot almost entirely in Spokane by North by Northwest Productions (and now playing at AMC), forces viewers to confront the realities of the Iraq war -- not abstractly in a far-off foreign land -- but right here at home. Its focus is squarely on the other war, the war no one (particularly the Commander in Chief) seems willing to confront. It's a war that America's men and women in uniform are forced to fight within their own communities: the struggle for successful re-integration into civilian life.
According to NXNW president/film producer Rich Cowan, those involved in the project were acutely sensitive to the fact that, at the time this work of fiction was still in production, real human lives were being negatively, irrevocably altered by real events on the ground in Iraq. None of them, however, could have then foreseen where we'd be (or rather, would not be) in May 2007, when the film actually premiered on screens across America.
"This film was shot a year and three or four months ago," Cowan remarks, noting that the script was in development a year before that. "And I think everybody -- from the director on down -- just sort of assumed that this war would be over by the time this film came out. I think we all had the idea that we were making a movie about something that would be over by now. And we're still in this thing."
The production was the largest yet for Spokane's NXNW. Cowan says he and his crew welcome the challenge of bigger jobs, but have more fun with smaller, intimate projects.
"We're very happy making modestly-budgeted films," he says. "We have the right size crew, and they enjoy working that way. With something as big as Home of the Brave, it can be a little chaotic."
Filmed on location in both Spokane and Morocco, Home of the Brave is a war story that hits close to home in more ways than one. It's about a group of soldiers returning from duty after tours in Iraq. In the film, "back in the States" means Spokane, Washington. Not an average, medium-sized, working-class American town like Spokane -- but Spokane, the River City, the Heart of the Inland Empire.
As if to put a finer point on it, the word "Spokane" appears at least four times on-screen (once during the opening credits). There's also a parade of familiar city landmarks -- the Spokane River Falls, the Monroe Street Bridge, the Steam Plant, the Fox Theater and Deaconess Hospital, to name a few. In fact, the plugging of Spokane's many visual delights is so relentless at times you'd swear the Chamber of Commerce had a hand in this thing. It's like: OK, OK, we get it. We're in a place called Spokane. And Spokane looks good.
And therein lies one of the keys to NXNW's success as a film production company.
"The thing that's nice about Spokane is that we offer a lot of architectural diversity," explains Cowan. "A lot of geographical diversity, as well. Just outside of Spokane you've got deserts and wheat fields and mountains and forests. That's what makes it such an attractive place to shoot a film."
Home of the Brave initially premiered last December in Los Angeles and New York, but is only now receiving a wide national release.
"I think the strategy was to sort of nibble and see if there was any interest on the awards side," says Cowan. "I think it actually got one Golden Globe nomination -- for best song."
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & ritten by first-timer Mark Friedman and directed by veteran Hollywood producer Irwin Winkler, Home of the Brave opens with a group of American troops receiving the happy news that they will soon be going home -- just as soon as they complete one more assignment.
Even before their armored convoy pulls out, you know they're going to get ambushed. And of course, they do.
The unfolding melodrama becomes even more predictable once all of the mentally scarred and physically injured soldiers return home via Spokane International Airport. Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson) hits the booze and, occasionally, his estranged son. Price (Jessica Biel), unable to adjust to her new prosthetic hand, scarfs anti-depressants and snarls at anyone who tries to help. Aiken (rapper 50 Cent) gets buried in VA paperwork and ends up stalking his ex-girlfriend. Yates (ex-soap star Brian Presley) can't seem to cope in the workplace -- either at the Spokane Valley Cinema or at the Spokane Police Department -- resulting in chain-smoking and road rage.
To the screenwriter and director's credit, Home of the Brave strives with great earnestness to depict the unvarnished horrors of war (including its all-too-often ignored aftermath) unflinchingly and with compassion. To their detriment, the case for "war is hell" has not only been made many times before in cinema, it has also been made with much more subtlety and without so much clich & eacute; and contrivance. Even a first-time screenwriter, for instance, should know better than to resort to lines as cringe-worthy as this one (from a friend to an embittered amputee), "I guess it only takes one hand to push people away."
Ultimately, HotB tries to do too much in too little time with too little in the way of real character development, instead relying on well-worn stereotypes to fill in the blanks. The film desperately wants us to care about these characters before we even know them, thus perhaps botching an opportunity to cultivate genuine viewer empathy with the plight of Iraq war vets.
Cowan has his own take on the success of the final cut (which he has only recently had the opportunity to view).
"I think the idea of doing something that explores the conflict in Iraq is a noble effort and is worth getting to the forefront in a narrative fashion," he says. "When we talk about the cost of this war, not much is said about how we're going to be paying for this war for the next 50 years in terms of medical care and shortened life spans and disability payments, as far as negative impacts on their families and just a reduction in the quality of life. Yet one thing that the film tried to do, maybe to a fault -- some have criticized it for this -- is to try and take sort of a balanced look at everything. It's not supporting the administration's decision to go to war, but it's not necessarily criticizing it, either. It's pointing out that it's a complex issue and a complex problem for which there are no easy answers. If nothing else, I think you get that out of it."