I’m standing around on the set of The Messenger, drinking cold coffee, waiting for the next set-up with no particular thing to do. As the co-writer of the film (our brilliant director, Oren Moverman, wrote the film with me), I’m welcome here, but I no longer really have a job. Someone asks me to write down the names I want to put on the dedication list. It was Oren’s idea: The Messenger would be dedicated to all the people we—cast and crew of the film—have lost and want to honor. It allows everyone working on the film to feel even more invested in it. More importantly, it underscores the universal aspect of its theme. The Messenger deals with war casualties and the people who report them, but ultimately it’s not just about the Army. It’s about loss and grief and resilience in everyone’s life—because we all get that message at some point, and we all have to send it.
So here I am, standing there with my coffee at the edge of a lake somewhere in New Jersey, smoking someone’s cigarettes (I smoke them but I don’t buy them—it’s my selfish trick to curb the habit) thinking about people I have lost. How did I get here?
It started three years earlier. Looking back, it’s clear how much my life has changed since.
On a practical level, I used to be a producer. While I remain committed to producing a few projects I’ve been developing, my day job is now writing (and nights are for sleeping).
On a more complex level, it feels like I’ve been on a long, strange journey into a world of grief. As a writer, I had the luxury to enter this world by choice. I’ve been a visitor, with a ticket out. Writing is a pretty great job like that: You can go to Mars, you can go to Hell—and then you go to dinner.
Except it’s not always that simple. With the luxury of that ticket out comes an obligation. If the world you’re going is real, you feel a sense of duty to do right by those who live there. Our film starts from the crude, inescapable fact that war means death, and when the fighting is over, death is what remains. You may say that for those who lose loved ones, war is never really over. Life goes on around it, despite it, finding ways back to love and hope, but dispensing the full measure of grief. As a subject for a film, this demands your complete honesty and commitment.
When Oren and I started working on The Messenger, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to be hard to write. Hard to get made. Hard to distribute. And yet, somehow, that was never a deterrent. It seemed like the kind of difficulty that defines things worth doing, so much more so when they’ve been left entirely undone.
Our first impulse came from that very observation: There was a story left untold. A moment left unseen. This was peculiar, because the “War on Terror” was actually a highly visible war. In many ways, it was a war of images. Never before had we seen so much of war; when we consider 9/11, it’s safe to say that never before had we seen so much of anything. Those towers burning and falling seared themselves into our minds. The years that followed brought the spectacle of bombings, torture and executions to our TVs and computer screens on a daily basis. Much of this spectacle was calculated, “scripted” and stage-managed. Some was random and raw. Yet this broad panorama of war had a crucial blind spot: The coffins. The funerals. The notifications. These images were illegal (the coffins), prudently rare (the funerals) or downright invisible (the notifications). It was a glaring omission, something that made any conversation about war less urgent than it needed to be. We were seeing the spectacle of death, but not the grim routine, the daily business of it.
We went looking for the invisible story. It was the rare subject that felt as real, as undeniable as anything, yet (for obvious and good reasons) could never be fully captured by a documentary. It was a truth that could only be reached through a fiction. Of course, soldiers in dress uniform knocking on a door have appeared in films before. But the scene is isolated, the soldiers are nameless, the moment is mainly imagined from the inside. Who are these soldiers? What is this job? What kind of toll does it take?
We quickly learned, by all accounts of the officers we spoke to and read about, that casualty notification is one of the most difficult jobs in the military—more difficult, some of them argued, than going into combat. This makes for rich dramatic territory to explore. If there’s one thing I know as a writer, it’s that you can always tell a story about someone doing a job. It can be a job with built-in conflict and high stakes (that’s why movies and shows about cops, doctors and lawyers keep getting made); it can be a prosaic job, seen in unique ways (taxi driver, mailman, gigolo); and if the job is unusual, thankless and dangerous—delivering death notices, firing other people, defusing bombs—one can immediately engage the audience’s curiosity and dread. (So, there is my best advice to starting writers: Get a job—any job—because you must understand the agony and the dignity of trading work for money, and then write about that or any other job that inspires, moves or frightens you.)
But I digress. The point is, we did our research and conducted interviews—as much as we could do, short of riding along on a notification (which wouldn’t have been allowed and which we wouldn’t have wanted to do anyway). But ultimately it came down to imagining those moments. It came down to feeling them. I’m not ashamed to say that we cried a lot. We are both parents of young children. We spent so much time in dark places, reading obituaries, marveling at the staggering waste of life. And we removed, as much as possible, the filter of our political views.
Sure, we have opinions about the wars we are in. Personally, I actually supported both wars at the beginning. I was never your typical hawk, but I identified with the “hard liberal” argument that the Taliban’s Islamo-fascism and Saddam’s genocidal dictatorship were worthy of a military solution. Allowing them to stay in power seemed like a kind of complacency—the lazy face of imperial privilege. And I believed Colin Powell when he made his presentation to the UN about Saddam’s weapons. Needless to say, my views changed drastically by the time we were starting The Messenger. (Oren, who grew up In Israel and served in the Israeli Army, was already ahead of me.)
But while we could easily have injected our views and opinions into the film, we realized early on that the movie shouldn’t be any kind of platform for a political statement. It would have been exploitative. Too many military families believe in the mission—or just don’t want to be lectured about it. It would also have been counterproductive. Slap a label on your film and you immediately create a reason to dismiss it. That’s why the politics of The Messenger come down to something very simple: We aim to say, ‘This is the permanent result of war. This is what it costs—not in dollars or in votes, but in human lives.’ Stare that in the face, then decide if it’s worth it.
So here I am, standing on set with a cup of coffee in my hand. I think of dead friends and relatives. My friend Francesco, who first told me about Spider-Man. It wasn’t long afterwards that he went on a hike and fell into a crevice. Spider-Man wasn’t there. My friend Enrico who was so terribly depressed, but I always thought he was funny. Until he jumped out of a window. The others lost to heroin, accidents, cancer. Who would I choose?
Ultimately, I never get around to putting a name on the list. I like the idea, and I’m glad others do. But when I think about it, I know I didn’t write the film to honor dead people I knew. I wrote it for those I didn’t know.
The Messenger is in theaters now. The film has been honored with a slew of awards around the world, including the Peace Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Critics Award and Grand Special Prize in Deauville. It has also been nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards—Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Male (Woody Harrelson), Best Supporting Female (Samantha Morton) and Best First Feature—and just earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.