In sports and other walks of life, they call it your “game face,” that serious expression that shows you’re serious, focused on the game or job at hand.
Soldiers might call it “mission face.” It’s what Maggie Swann, an Army medic, wears into battle. It’s confidence-inspiring to that GI with an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade jammed in his gut. He’s in good hands.
It shows she belongs, that she’s as hard as anybody serving in Afghanistan with her.
But it’s the same look she wears when she gets back to Texas, to Fort Bliss, “the world,” when nobody meets her plane, when her unreliable ex-husband (Ron Livingston) finally shows up.
And it’s still pasted on her face when she tugs and takes away the screaming five year-old (Oakes Fegley) who barely knows her after her 15 month deployment.
“Fort Bliss” is a solid tough-adjustment-coming-home melodrama built around a superb performance by Michelle Monaghan. Maybe she looked a little too glam for down-and-dirty Boston in “Gone Baby Gone,” too pretty to fit in that 18-wheeler world of “Trucker.” But she is ramrod straight, walking, talking authority as Sgt. Swann, a woman overcompensating (and aware of it) in a man’s world, a brave warrior coming home with baggage.
Her son Paul thinks her ex’s new girlfriend (Emmanuelle Chriqui) is his mom, and tosses tantrums and sleepwalks at her rigid, by-the-Army-book parenting. It’s as if she’s scared to let him see her smile, determined not to show emotion.
That goes for the mechanic (Manolo Cardona) who flirts with her when she needs her mothballed Jeep Cherokee repaired. She glares him down on his price, agrees to a date and turns that into a heated sexual encounter — heat without warmth.
“You like telling people what to do, huh?”
Writer-director Claudia Myers delivers combat zone flashbacks which are modestly gripping, if utterly conventional — survivor’s guilt, trauma, the adrenalin rush that has some eager to re-enlist because life back in Fort Bliss is just to dull.
Monaghan lets Swann’s humanity peek out in tiny increments as she re-connects with her kid, starts to develop feelings for this mechanic-with-benefits and begins to dread the idea of re-deployment, inevitable given her line of work.
But from the green recruits whose only experience of combat is training drills and video games to the cliched hard-case fellow sergeant (Gbenga Akinnagbe) who tests her, this is all standard issue GI movie stuff. Even the lecture from her commanding officer (Freddy Rodríguez) is over-familiar.
“Country first. You ever hear that?”
“Try livin’ it!”
It’s up to Monaghan to lift this, to show us the dedication and service and sense of responsibility to her comrades that is battered by a child’s tears, tested by a drunken ex-husband’s on-the-money accusations about her priorities.
She and Livingston make that the film’s best scene, but start to finish, Monaghan never lets us forget the inner turmoil this tough cookie has learned to keep under wraps from all the men in her life — her commanders, her subordinates, her ex, her lover and her son. It’s a career-capping performance.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, explicit sex, profanity
Cast: Michelle Monaghan, Ron Livingston, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Manolo Cardona
Credits: Written and directed by Claudia Myers. A Phase 4 Films release.
Running time: 1:49
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