Fort Bliss, a movie about the troubles faced by a female medic following redeployment to Fort Bliss, Texas, from a tough tour in Afghanistan, was released to little fanfare or popular success in late 2014. Directed by Claudia Meyers and starring Michelle Monaghan as US Army Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann, Fort Bliss might have constituted an attention-grabbing statement about women in the military. With the current media scrutiny on women trying to make it through Army Ranger School, getting fired as Marine Corps commanders for being too rigorous and straight-shooting, and trying to combine motherhood and careers, not to mention public skirmishes about whether women need to rid themselves of feminine speech patterns and “Resting Bitch Faces” to succeed in male-dominated fields, you would have thought Fort Bliss would have been the movie, not American Sniper, to stoke national conversations last year. And yet, Fort Bliss seems to have underwhelmed and underperformed, and consequently neglected and passed-by, in spite of the generally favorable reviews recorded on the Rotten Tomatoes website. That’s unfortunate, but upon watching Fort Bliss this week, I too was left wishing the movie was a little more than it was and suspicious that a better movie might have been made out of the film’s basic ingredients.
Before delving deep into critical wonderment, I’ll list several of Fort Bliss‘s clear virtues. Performances by Ron Livingston as Sergeant Swann’s ex-husband, Freddy Rodriguez as her company commander, and Oakes Fegley as her child are excellent. The military details, both in scenes set in Afghanistan and in garrison at Fort Bliss aren’t perfect, but their lapses from verisimilitude aren’t aggravating enough to make me want to throw a desert combat boot at the screen. An ambush set in Helmand province that opens the movie bore enough similarity to one I was fortunate to live through that I grew slightly rattled thinking about where else down memory lane the movie might take me. That feeling of dread didn’t last, fortunately, but scenes set in Fort Bliss and its El Paso environs featured enough Latino faces both in uniform and off-post that I was gratifyingly reminded of the many Mexican-American soldiers, Marines, airmen, and sailors with whom I served.
Returning to Sergeant Swann, Michelle Monaghan looks right for her role as the high-strung, emotionally uptight NCO. Sergeant Swann brought to mind several women (and men, too) I knew in the military who were almost scarily competent, but who masked their task-crunching proficiency beneath grim, seemingly humorless demeanors. “Do you like to boss people around?” Sergeant Swann is asked by her love interest. “No, I just like to get things done,” she replies. Her hair pulled back in a tight bun, she is all business on the job, and has trouble letting go when the day is done. A telling scene shows her knocking out sets of push-ups while downing cans of Budweiser in her apartment in the evening, her devotion to self-improvement matched by the need to self-medicate (been there and done that myself). A second telling scene comes when Sergeant Swann declines to attend the promotion party of one of her soldiers so she can complete supposedly-important paperwork–a big-time leadership fail. A war-hero whose life-saving exploits in Afghanistan should have made her a military rockstar, as well as imbued with her a charismatic swagger that would have her soldiers dying to please her, she is unfortunately haunted by other deployment experiences—to include fending off the unwelcome advances of a male soldier whose later death she feels culpable for. Now conflicted and made cautious, she resorts to a strict, by-the-books efficiency that is OK, kind of, but not really, in the eyes of both her troops and her boss, who practically plead with her to be more of a person.
Meyers and Monaghan don’t portray Sergeant Swann’s behavior as that of a fiercely independent woman whom society (meaning, “the military, the men in her life, and male viewers, too”) will just have to get used to. Her speech doesn’t include uptalk or vocal fry or an excess of “so’s,” “like’s,” “just’s,” and “sorry’s,” but she’s got the RBF-thing down cold, with her face locked in a perpetual scowl born either of unhappiness or some idea that a frowny face represents toughness and determination. The movie suggests that she better lose the glower post-haste/most tic/stat if she ever wants to be happy or get anything she wants again, which is not a very feminist-friendly position, but seems like an obvious, common-sense solution to some of the problems she’s facing. Sergeant Swann kicks ass on the job, but outside the Fort Bliss gates, she makes mistakes left and right and they hurt her and those for whom she should care. She intimidates the hell out of everyone she meets, including her young son with whom she struggles to reconnect, as words and behavior that seem appropriate to her are perceived by others as way too strident and directive. Two of the best speeches in the movie come from men—one by Sergeant Swann’s ex-husband and and another by her company commander—who in gentle-but-firm terms tell her what a selfish, awful person—not a bitch, but an asshole—she has become, and Myers doesn’t suggest that they’re being misogynist pricks at all. And this being the movies, but also perhaps like real life, too, all that repressed humanity comes bubbling out in torrents when Sergeant Swann finds a sensitive roughneck below her station to fall in love with/screw furiously.
Fort Bliss’s portrait of Sergeant Swann reminds me of Cara Hoffman’s novel Be Safe, I Love You, in which Hoffman’s protagonist, another female NCO veteran, also seems so tightly wound that she becomes not just repellent to other characters but to the author who dreamed her into being. But where Hoffman keeps the pedal-to-the-metal to the end of her novel in order to illustrate how badly war and the military have damaged her hero, Fort Bliss pulls its punches. At movie’s close, Sergeant Swann comes to her senses, snaps back into line, makes nice with everyone, and is forgiven by everyone she has previously treated poorly—a happy resolution that is achieved by her decision to accept another deployment to Afghanistan. Well, that’s the Army for you, happens all the time, and Myers for all intents and purposes gives the military a pass for the atrocious life-choices it forces on its members. But where soldiers suck such things down either confusedly or as a matter-of course, Fort Bliss envelops its endgame in a Lifetime-esque golden glow of winsome acceptance accompanied by tinkly guitar and plaintive folksinging.
The softy-soft ending is only the culmination of a number of mushy defects that ultimately degrade Fort Bliss‘s excellent acting and interesting premises. I may have just made a ham-handed hash of Fort Bliss‘s feminist politics, but I’m surer of my ground when I say there aren’t enough striking lines of dialogue, compellingly staged scenes, and unexpected twists of plot to make Fort Bliss really good. Instead, the movie trundles along in a very predictable biopic gear, as if its good intentions were enough to earn it a pat-on-the-back. A reviewer named Carson Lund, writing for Slant magazine, noticed much the same thing and wrote of director Meyers, “It’s apparent … that her interest in the personal lives of those in the military is nothing less than genuine, but it’s also clear that the complicated psychological realities of army personnel require a tougher directorial treatment than the maudlin melodrama presented here.” That’s harsh, but not entirely wrong, and I wonder if Hollywood or financial pressure kept Myers from making a movie that burns hotter and hits harder.
Finally, scenes in Fort Bliss that demonstrate Sergeant Swann’s prowess as a combat medic are good, but not as good as the great concluding scene in Captain Phillips, in which real-life Navy Corpsman Danielle Albert treats the injured and traumatized character played by Tom Hanks. Captain Phillips is an important GWOT film for many reasons, but just in case I never get around to writing at length about it, let’s end today by admiring Corpsman Albert’s expertise. In my experience she illustrates how really good combat medics, whether man or woman, take control of the wounded and scared-beyond-belief casualties under their care: