How to Fold a Flag [Full Frame 2010]

Reviews of Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film, The Hurt Locker (my response) tended to address the film’s hyperrealist aesthetic, its use of handheld camera and its visceral treatment of a squad of soldiers whose primary purpose is to defuse improvised explosive devices (IEDs).  In particular, reviewers latched onto the thematic hook proposed by the film that, as Chris Hedges puts it, “war is a drug.”  And although I found The Hurt Locker to be masterfully directed, the film seems to totalize the experiences of U.S. soldiers, reducing them to types.  When Jeremy Renner’s SFC William James stares blankly at an aisle of cereals, Muzak playing menacingly in the background, he seems to stand in for all of the soldiers unable to adjust to life after combat.

In that context, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s latest Iraq War documentary, How to Fold a Flag (IMDB), offers a welcome corrective by depicting the diverse ways in which soldiers adjust to life after combat.  This is Tucker and Epperlein’s fourth film documenting aspects of the Iraq War, and most of the subjects of How to Fold a Flag appeared in their first film together, Gunner Palace (my review), which portrayed a unit of soldiers stationed in a bombed-out palace belonging to one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.  Now, seven years after Gunner Palace helped to shape the genre of the Iraq War documentary, Tucker and Epperlein offer a complex portait of what it means to come home.

The film follows four soldiers, Javorn Drummond, a college student (who happens to attend Fayetteville State University, where I teach), and who also worked at a nearby hog processing plant; Stuart Wilf, the “class clown” of Gunner Palace, who now works as a convenience store clerk; Michael Goss, who is a professional cage fighter; and Jon Powers, who runs for Congress in his hometown community near Buffalo, NY.  Tucker also visits the family of Ben Colgan, a soldier who died during the time that Tucker was filming Gunner Palace, meeting with Colgan’s parents, who are active in the peace movement.

In weaving these stories together, Flag raises a number of questions about how veterans are welcomed back into the community, as well as the difficulty of communicating that adjustment to people who haven’t gone to war.  Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of returning home is how little things seem to change.  As Javorn describes it while giving a tour of house, a small shack north of Fayetteville, “when you come back from war, you come back to what you left behind.”  In Javorn’s case, that includes a somewhat distant relationship with his mom, a Brooklyn-based poet who is dying of cancer, as well as the struggles of paying the bills while working your way through college.

Michael Goss, on the other hand, seems utterly haunted by his experience of the war.  Before his cage-fighting matches, he wears a t-shirt emblazoned with the names of soldiers he served with who died during the war.  At the bottom of his list is his own name, with Goss saying that “the real Michael Goss died out there.”  The cage fights themselves offer a distorted, borderline surreal twist on patriotism, with Miss Louisiana singing the National Anthem, the riled up audience singing an off-key version of “Proud to be an American,” and even an ceremony of a group of soldiers joining the army.  When Goss fights, he seems to be fighting for his very soul, admitting at one point (after posting a violent war video on the web) that after being kicked out of the army he “lost his sense of home.”

All of the soldiers’ stories take place against a backdrop of American politics, a pageant that seems completely alien to the everyday challenges faced by Goss, Drummond, and others.  Wilf, somewhat ambivalently, attends Barack Obama’s DNC speech in Denver, remaining reflective while the crowds around him cheer at nearly every moment.  Wilf’s cynicism–he makes several humorous jokes about politicians–prevents us from fully embracing the electoral process as genuinely transformative, even while Jon Powers, running in a Democratic Congressional primary in New York, holds out hope for political campaigning.  We see Powers giving speeches, walking door-to-door, and marching parades, a sea of American flags waving along the side of the road while high school bands play.

By telling us these stories, Flag seems to be making two arguments: First, we need a more robust effort to help soldiers adjust to “normal” life after spending time in combat.  But second (and perhaps more crucial) is the point that we should not totalize (or universalize) the soldiers’ experiences.   For this reason, I found Peter Brunette’s review a little mystifying.  While Brunette faults the film for offering little more than post-Iraq War “hand-wringing,” I found little of that. Although several soldiers, including Courtney Massey, who participates in the flag-folding detail at many soldiers’ funerals, acknowledge the disillusionment about the war, the film is far more interested in telling us the personal stories of several soldiers who fought and reminding us that each one of them has his own story, and that they each face different challenges once they come home.

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