Out today on DVD, "The Messenger" stars Ben Foster as Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery and Woody Harrelson.
"I'm not gonna be giving any hugs," Staff Sgt. Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) assures Capt. Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), in a tight, careful voice. Sent home from Iraq after a combat injury, Montgomery lands in Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the Army finds something for him to do in the last few months of his hitch. Stone, an older career soldier and veteran of the first Persian Gulf War, has been briefing him on proper deportment with the "N.O.K." -- next-of-kin -- during a Casualty Notification call. There's a manual that covers every eventuality in excruciating detail, which Stone goes through with the younger man over diner coffee, demanding twice that Montgomery look him in the eye when he answers.
Always tethered to beepers, Montgomery and Stone are racing to beat CNN and FOX News and Face Book to survivors. They speak only with designated next-of-kin -- never to neighbors or mistresses -- and can, if asked, relate how a soldier died and call someone for the next-of-kin if needed. When they cross one wide yard in a tract of military bungalows and a line of silent women press against a chain-link fence watching them, knowing what two officers in dress uniforms means, you start to wait for the mine to explode and begin to see that is what happens for families who get this visit.
Stone is completely earnest about doing his duty correctly here, not because he likes the power of rank, but because this is the way he can serve. Stone is an alcoholic shakily on the wagon -- later he and Montgomery share an epic binge during which each stands up for the other, recreating in a lakeside brawl and a drunken invasion of a decorous wedding reception the battlefield solidarity each feels he has so fallen short of -- and beneath Harrelson's big-lug exterior you can see both Stone's fastidiousness and his decency. Casting Harrelson in this role was audacious, and he picked up a slew of nominations and awards last winter for his performance.