In late 1946 producer Samuel Goldwyn took a dramatic gamble when he released William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives, a drama about three soldiers trying to adjust to civilian life after returning home from World War II. Adapted from a verse novel, the movie ran nearly three hours, and one of its lead actors, Harold Russell, was a real-life veteran who'd lost both his hands during the war and subsequently functioned with steel hooks, a disturbing sight in those days of Hollywood glamour. The war had been over for a year already, and the public might well have turned its back on this painful movie. But The Best Years of Our Lives struck a chord—embraced by the nation, talked about everywhere, it became the highest-grossing movie since Gone With the Wind. At the 1947 Academy Awards it walked off with eight Oscars, including best picture, director, and screenplay. Russell went home with two statuettes—one for best supporting actor and the other a special award for having inspired veterans.
Thirty years later, after the Vietnam war had bitterly divided the country, Hollywood began to address the veterans who'd come home from southeast Asia, and when the 1979 Oscars rolled around, two of the most heavily nominated movies were Hal Ashby's Coming Home and Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. As Peter Biskind detailed in a recent Vanity Fair story, these two films polarized the academy just as the war had polarized the nation: Coming Home, the story of a woman who falls in love with a paraplegic veteran, was championed by more liberal voters, while The Deer Hunter, about three Pennsylvania steel workers traumatized by their combat experience, won over the more conservative voters. Neither was a commercial smash along the lines of The Best Years of Our Lives, but both were solid successes with the public, and on Oscar night the major prizes were divided between them—Coming Home took best actor, actress, and screenplay; The Deer Hunter best picture, director, and supporting actor.
Dramas about returning Iraq war veterans haven't received nearly so warm a welcome. The first, Irwin Winkler's Home of the Brave, opened in New York and LA shortly before Christmas 2006 and was released a little more widely the following summer, mostly near military bases, but it quickly vanished. Clearly modeled on The Best Years of Our Lives, it followed three soldiers as they tried to adjust to life in a country that didn't want to think about them or the war they'd been fighting. I wouldn't call it a knockout, but it had some powerful scenes, particularly those involving Jessica Biel as a soldier who'd lost a hand and was now forced to make do with a big, clumsy prosthesis obviously designed for a man. Kimberly Peirce's Stop-Loss, an MTV-produced drama about three young grunts returning from the war to their stars-and-stripes Texas town, got a more respectful rollout from Paramount Pictures this past March, but it flopped, grossing less than half its $25 million production cost.
Whether Neil Burger's The Lucky Ones will break the jinx is anyone's guess, but as a story it's more convincing and substantial than Stop-Loss or Home of the Brave. Inevitably, it's about three soldiers—middle-aged family man Cheaver (Tim Robbins), volatile TK (Michael Peña), and dumb but genial Colee (Rachel McAdams)—who arrive stateside without quite returning home. But Burger, who wrote and directed the canny Interview With the Assassin and The Illusionist, doesn't use The Best Years of Our Lives as a template. He was more inspired by Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973), in which two sailors are ordered to transport a third to the naval prison at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to serve an eight-year sentence. Like that film, The Lucky Ones is structured as a picaresque. As a series of complications takes the trio from New York to Saint Louis to Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, the trauma of war is never far from the surface, but the movie has a healthy sense of humor that lets Burger examine their emotional isolation without sinking into a bog of despair.
That sense of isolation is frequently evoked in portrayals of the war's aftermath. In Patricia Foulkrod's 2006 documentary The Ground Truth, still the most important movie I've seen about Iraq veterans, one soldier explains, "You don't fit anywhere. There's no place for you to fit in except by yourself. And then you don't like yourself. I'm not a person that wants to kill myself, but if there was ever a time that I felt that way, it was then." The three vets in The Lucky Ones meet on a flight coming back to New York, and when all connections out of JFK are canceled because of a blackout, they agree to drive cross-country together in a rented minivan. They don't know one another, and aside from Colee, they don't seem eager to. But the first night, as they share a hotel room, TK cries out from a nightmare, waking himself and the other two. "I was... you know," he mutters. "Sorry." No explanation is necessary; they've all been there.
Their bond grows as each learns how alienated the others are from what they once called home. Cheaver has been discharged after three tours of duty and can't wait to see his wife and son in Saint Louis, but when he arrives, his wife announces that she's "moved on" and wants a divorce. The other two, unwilling to leave him alone in his anguished and suicidal state, shanghai him for the remainder of the journey. TK, for his part, eventually confesses that a shrapnel wound has left him impotent and he's afraid to go home to his fiancee. And Colee has no home at all: her mother threw her out long ago. Her boyfriend, who served in her unit, died trying to protect her, and now she's headed to Las Vegas hoping to be taken in by his parents, who've never met or even heard about her. "We're the lucky ones, aren't we?" she says cheerily at the outset of the journey. "We made it through in one piece."
In the end what unites them the most is the ignorance of the civilians they meet along the way. Locked out of the minivan, they seek help at a car dealership and are ferried back in a Hummer that's better equipped than anything they've ever seen; the dealer explains that some customers want theirs outfitted with camouflage like combat vehicles. Stopping off in Indiana, they walk into a bar full of raptly silent people, all staring at Regis Philbin as he prepares to hand down a decision on America's Got Talent, and a gaggle of snotty coeds mocks Colee for her limp. Later the three are roped into attending a house party where guests patronize them with casual opinions about the war. "These guys are screwed, and for what?" asks one guy. Another guest asks them what they were fighting for, and when they reply that they were just fighting to stay alive he exclaims, "Stay alive? Well, if that's your attitude, no wonder we're losing."
I'd hate to guess whether most Americans know, any more than these fictional partygoers, what soldiers go through in Iraq. But if the market for movies about the war is any indication, they don't want to.