Most of us will never understand the military, let alone what haunts combat veterans.
Our view of it is colored by politics and the lack of personal experience, but for those who join, it stays with them for a lifetime.
This Is Not A War Story is a movie from Executive Producer Rosario Dawson that takes a sobering look at the veteran experience.
This Is Not a War Story unveils its narrative with a unique blend of fiction and reality that is both dramatic and intimate.
Dawson and director and actress Talia Lugacy have captured a segment of the population that often goes unnoticed, flying under the radar to use a pun that hits a little too close to home.
Sam Adegoke (Dynasty) stars as combat veteran Will LaRue. We meet him shortly after watching the last moments of Timothy Reyes (Danny Ramirez), who passes through the NYC subway system unnoticed — until his death inside a subway car.
Like many other combat veterans, the haunting recollection of his time overseas proved too much for Timothy to bear as he covered his memories with a steady stream of drugs, often supplied by the Veteran’s Association medical facilities, but also gained illegally to supplement his need to disappear.
As his peer-to-peer mentor, Will takes it particularly hard. One of the few things keeping him afloat is his participation in a veteran’s artistic group.
A good portion of This Is Not A War Story takes place within this small community and features a supporting cast of Iraq and Vietnam veterans, as well as their original artwork, poetry, and music.
I’m unsure how much of their dialog was written or sharing their own experiences, but it lends an authoritative feel to the characters that surround these real souls, as well as the purpose of the art studio.
By transforming their own and donated military uniforms into paper, they turn their sorrow, guilt, and shame into something beautiful and meaningful. The first step is walking into the building and connecting with others who, like them, need the distraction and connection to stay afloat.
From there, they tear their uniforms (which in itself provides a satisfying catharsis that never grows tiring) and bond with the others, sharing stories and offering shoulders to lean on to get them through their most trying moments.
It’s there that Will meets Isabelle (Lugacy), a recently discharged combat veteran and MP at odds with her brother and mother (Francis Fisher) over her decision to join the Marines, which makes her return as unbearable as her deployment.
When Isabelle and Will begin connecting on a deeper level than their service and art, the responsibility Will feels in Timothy’s death forces him into seclusion, leaving Isabelle confused.
Through their relationship, the deep-seated fears that combat veterans feel when they return play out as Isabelle hopes that by hitching her wagon to Will, she’ll learn how to live again, following in his seemingly successful footsteps.
But Will knows better. Everyone in their position puts on brave faces for those around them. It’s what they were trained to do. Returning stateside leaves them vulnerable not only because of what they experienced but because of that training.
Hiding their pain from society, their loved ones, and even each other perpetuates the cycle, and their chances of a full recovery, facing their unique challenges face forward diminishes.
With each misstep, they bear the burden alone because society remains in the dark about the great impact that being the might for the United States of America in the worst situations around the world brings to our troops.
As awful as their experiences are, they have each other to share them with, and the artists’ enclave is a lifesaver, but as the film expresses, not everyone can be saved.
This Is Not A War Story can’t work miracles, but it initiates a conversation that, as a nation, we need to have.
Every step taken by combat veterans can be tenuous as they seek redemption for actions based on decisions they didn’t make from a society that would rather turn a blind eye than fully accept the realities of war.
And lest you decide to get political here, the film isn’t about right and left any more than it is right and wrong. One scene makes it very clear.
While the group is engaged in their artistic endeavors and chitchatting about their varying experiences, one veteran talks about pounding the pavement before the 2008 elections to get their troops home from the unending foreign occupation in Afghanistan.
Their dealing with the DNC was met favorably with the potential Obama administration, who promised action if they were elected. They didn’t get anywhere with the RNC. In the end, it didn’t matter.
As the fellow says, “You know the rest. Obama gets elected, the left goes to sleep, the war continues, and here we are.”
This Is Not A War Story presents its story without prejudice, and the result is a slap in the face to viewers. It doesn’t matter where you stand politically. We must embrace combat and all veterans and stop hiding our heads in the sand about their plight.
Their journey is tough enough abroad. Once they return, they should be welcomed with open arms, receiving the support they need to put that behind them and start over again at home.
What This Is Not A War Story achieves is as remarkable as it is sobering. Hopefully, it will inspire others to carry the torch, shedding light on the veteran experience in a rich and caring way.
This Is Not A War Story is still playing the festival circuit. If there’s a festival near you, you should check this out. It will be available to the public in 2022.
Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.