BluRay/DVD Reviews

SOLDIER’S HEART

By • Jul 16th, 2008 •

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“Soldier’s heart,” now considered an anachronistic term, was defined as neurocirculatory asthenia, and the symptoms included chest pains, palpitation, and fatigue. What the words convey is that soldiers have always suffered the consequences of combat long after they have seen their last battle. It is a uniquely military experience, and cannot be shared with those who have not been so engaged. A pronounced byproduct of the Vietnam War was identification and acceptance of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder was quite common and often resulted in inadequate social integration upon return to civilian life following the war.

SOLDIER’S HEART is a complex, multigenerational tale of a father and son who went off to different wars and their responses to the circumstances they encountered. It addresses the ubiquitous journey from fear that is common among front line soldiers, and the cultural importance of remembering, even those events that evoked that fear in the first place.

In the director’s somewhat autobiographical film, Elliot, played by James Kiberd, long ago returned from war but drifted from one business scheme to another. In reality he is always searching for something that seems beyond his grasp. Like Elliot, his father too had some problems with reintegration into post WW II society. However, his generation did not have a formalized psychiatric diagnosis to fall back on. This led to a strained relationship between the two, more so than traditional father-son conflicts.

While the movie purports to generalize post-Vietnam PTSD, the reality of that war was the complexity and distinct differences that were experienced, based on geography, time and duration of exposure. The experiences of soldiers fighting in the mid-to-late 1960s were very different from those of the early 1970’s. Similarly, the war in the Mekong Delta was vastly different from those who were engaged in the northern highlands. Therefore, any attempt to generalize is fraught with problems of recognition, even to average returning troops. Still, periodic grief and self-reflection are common factors, experienced by all returning from that, and every other war.

Interestingly, there are a number of subplots that are subtly intertwined to help elucidate the main message of the vicissitudes of a combat veteran attempting to normalize his life after initially experiencing the disenfranchisement uniquely associated with the Vietnam War. Now Elliot lives under daily pressure to support his cancer-surviving wife, Linda, aptly played by Cady McCain, and make ends meet. Concurrently he realizes the need to rectify his somewhat strained relationship with his father. Even after his father’s death, which is depicted in a touching, transformational moment, the quest for resolution continues. Through his exploration, he comes to understand some of the idiosyncratic behaviors he saw in his father. The film also touches on other penetrating issues such as survivor’s guilt, common among soldiers who lost buddies in close proximity, and through those deaths, and of close relatives, the notion of one’s own mortality.

It is refreshing to see a movie that realistically depicts more mild forms of PTSD in which the participants are reasonably functional. Wisely, the director, Brian Delate, included Richie, played by him, as a Vietnam vet who, after a couple of brief stumbles, successfully transitioned from a combat soldier to a respected local businessman. Frankly, Hollywood has made too many movies depicting returning war veterans as totally dysfunctional, drug impaired, or suffering from massive antisocial behavioral problems. SOLDIER’S HEARTpresents a far more balanced understanding of soldiers who have problems to work out because of the stresses they encountered, yet not acting out in such a manner that they frequently come in contact with law enforcement.

SOLDIER’S HEART is a journey into awareness. But combat stress, by any name, never completely goes away. It may wax and wane in a soldier’s consciousness, but at some level it is always lurking in the hidden recesses of the mind, waiting to haunt your dreams at even the most unsuspecting moment. It never goes away.

The reviewer is a retired US Army colonel who served in Vietnam.

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One Response »

  1. For John Alexander —

    Dear Sir, I was so moved to read your most articulate review — and I’ve never written to a reviewer before. Your response has been in line with the spirit of almost all of the veterans and their families who have seen the movie so far. I have also been receiving some very candid responses – right from the heart – from fellow veterans. This has been a labor and of course the scarifices financially and creatively have been challenging, but ultimately worth it. I see that you served as well – and to you I say, “Welcome Home.”

    God Bless — Brian Delate

    PS If you would like to make contact, I would be honored.

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