“Fuck American Sniper. Fuck Hurt Locker. Fuck Zero Dark Thirty. Especially fuck Saving Private Ryan. Fucking rah-rah military bullshit. ‘Good’ war bullshit. Like there can be a good one.”
Talia Lugacy’s This is Not a War Story is a noble attempt at telling multiple stories about a big topic, mixing a fictional story with real-life soldiers sharing their experiences. It doesn’t always narratively gel or structurally blend, resulting in see-saw pacing. That’s not a knock. The fictional segments simply aren’t as engaging as the real ones. How could they be? Last year’s Oscar-winning Nomadland had a similar issue but a larger budget and pedigree. Real life, real stories and real experiences are infinitely stranger and more engaging than anything we can drum up in our imaginations — even when our imaginations are put to extraordinarily empathetic use.
The fictional story follows a group of veterans who start practicing artwork together as a way of building community and purpose. Will (Sam Adegoke) and Isabelle (Lugacy) meet and have a connection; they help each other through this thing, but it’s not an easy time. Their art repurposes aspects of their former military life, particularly the transformation of Marine fatigues into artwork. It is, in a way, desecration of a part of the system they were so connected to during their time in the service. They’d been trained to believe in it, to kill for it. To those on the outside, it’s just so much as patterned fabric.
Intercut with the story of Will and Isabelle are real stories from veterans, many of whom also play supporting roles in the fictional sequences as members of the art community. Their stories are harrowing and frank, covering a range of tragic outcomes to returning home. As in the monologue above, delivered expertly by Will, This is Not a War Story tries to present a stark contrast to American culture’s love of heroic war stories where men find fame, riches and / or existential purpose on the front lines of battle. The veneration of war has always ended in tragedy. Always. And even though 21st-century American culture has included space for anti-war stories, it’s never really been enough, has it? War binds people together before it irrevocably breaks them.
This is Not a War Story doesn’t quite successfully merge the fictional and the real together in a way that feels natural, but it’s hard to deny the ambitious empathy of Lugacy’s goal. It’s not a movie you’ll enjoy and connecting to its story is not easy. But I appreciated what it wanted to do, and by the end, I was fully on its side. It’s hard to make an issue as large as society’s psychological abandonment of veterans feel educational and expansive while also emotionally engaging an audience. The topic itself is inherently challenging to viewers raised on the movies listed in the quote above. Although Lugacy’s film doesn’t ultimately engage quite as quickly or effectively as it could, it works its ass off to make sure those who watch it hear as many voices as it can capture. Not an easy watch, but a valuable one.