by: Luke Cummings
I’m generally a huge fan of movies, no matter how good or how bad the critics rate them, because I can almost always find something in the film to appreciate, be it acting, creativity, film technique, or themes. I am particularly picky, however, when it comes to military movies. While some of these films’ directors are exercising their Hollywoodian right to shock and awe, some directors try noticeably hard to portray their characters with a high sense of realism, especially if the story they are telling actually happened. I am usually more forgiving of the former and less forgiving of the latter, especially in terms of accuracy and themes.
Having said all this, I was extra critical of Man Down since it is based on the conflict and military branch in which I served. But first, a general synopsis for you, WITH SPOILERS.
This film (not a true story) follows Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) as he goes through training, deployment to Afghanistan, and then back home again. The bulk of the story is told by Drummer while he talks to a military chaplain counselor (Gary Oldman), mixing in many flash backs and flash forwards. His harrowing experiences in Afghanistan have changed him forever, and upon returning home, he discovers that the United States has experienced some sort of apocalyptic event, and his beloved wife (Kate Mara) and son are missing. Accompanying him on this dangerous search to locate his family is his best friend and fellow Marine Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney), and we continually learn more about their complicated bond. As the viewer learns late in the film, the death of Roberts in an Afghan house is the traumatic event that Drummer is getting counseled for. Drummer blames himself for not clearing the room properly, and this guilt, combined with survivor’s guilt and PTSD, drives him to great confusion about his surroundings. In the end, we discover that there was no apocalyptic event after all, and that his wife and son are not missing but living right there in his own home with him.
This film has a decent amount of technical military accuracy. Aside from a few uniform discrepancies, such as how the cammies always look brand new, or how they wear their covers without flattening the tops when they put them on, the uniforms were spot-on accurate. I especially appreciate this since most movies get them wrong. As far as equipment like weapons and gear, there are again only some minor discrepancies, like the cross hairs that Drummer views through his ACOG scope. Barring an IED explosion with the typical Hollywoodian fireball, the combat sequences were surprisingly accurate, right down to the sound that the rifles made when being fired. Overall, the film is slightly above average in these areas, so I’ll give it a B+.
One of the major technical inaccuracies that I saw was the training school that Drummer and Roberts are in together. I assume they are supposed to be in School of Infantry, or maybe even Squad Leader’s course, but the filmmakers got it wrong. The instructor treats them like recruits in boot camp, they get OC spray training, which is only given at separate specialty schools, and they are allowed to live in base housing with their families during their off-time, rather than together in squad bays. While the training itself wasn’t far off, the aforementioned details were, and I give the film a D in this area.
Now I’ll move on to the more psychological themes that the film was trying to present. I must say this up front: I hate how it portrays veterans. The film, as fictional as it is, purports that veterans who have experienced trauma all have severe cases of Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that cause them to constantly hallucinate and be confused while putting the lives of their loved ones in danger. Now, I’m not saying these types of scenarios have never occurred, but when they have they always involved more mental illnesses. A side effect of the cultural awareness of PTSD and TBI is that they are so politicized and generalized in our culture that they are taken well beyond reasonable proportions and applied to every veteran. This couldn’t be further from reality. There are varying degrees of these conditions, and most veterans don’t even have them. Most veterans that do have them live and thrive in spite of their conditions; they don’t hallucinate and shoot at their wife and try to kidnap their children to keep them safe from the fictional bad guys. They aren’t a danger to society; they are a backbone. They aren’t frail; they’re complicated, and many of them are stronger because of their experiences. The epidemic of suicide among veterans is a concern, yes, but most veterans that commit suicide don’t try to hurt others. If the hallucinations had turned out to be a metaphor for how veterans feel when they come home, then that would be one thing, but this is not what the film does. For this damaging portrayal, I give the film an F.
However, the portrayal of the emotions felt by veterans who have lost close friends in combat or to suicide was moving and real. Survivor’s guilt is a tangible source of suffering for many combat vets, and this can be paired with losing friends to suicide after they come home. I give Shia LaBeouf an A for performance because he was able to capture emotions that many actors can’t. I also give the film an A for even attempting to grasp these emotions and relay them to the viewers.
Overall, the film has an important message that I would like to see more people receive, but the damaging portrayal that I detailed can make its effect on public opinion of veterans less than desirable. It’s worth a watch if you have a couple hours, but don’t bend over backward to see it.