I have been an aficionado of cinema for well over half a century so it is exceptionally rare that a film seemingly comes out of nowhere and blows me away. While out of the norm it does still happens which is a part of why this incredible media for telling a story continues to enthrall me as it does. The most recent example of this can in the form of a modestly budgeted independent film, which in itself is no surprise, but it immediately captivated me in a way I have not experienced in quite a long while. What I found exceedingly unusual from a personal perspective is the fact it is a war movie. As a member of generation disillusioned during the Vietnam War the jingoistic movies that glorify the armed conflict between nations never quite appealed to me. I was brought up on the semi propaganda films from World War II the celebrated personal courage and a national commitment against the very real threat of an intrinsically evil and ambitious rťgime. Such films were necessary for the moral of a nation in a difficult time but that was a specific set of circumstances. Lately war flicks have been transformed into a vehicle of action oriented special effects where the masters of this craft can compete for who can create the loudest explosion or coolest visual experience. Letís face it; there is nothing glorious about dying or the goal of commerce which is unfortunately a major motivation in most wars that have been fought. What the film ĎMemorial Dayí did that surprised me was to restore the human, personal perspective to war. Watching it reminded me of the time I had a long conversation with the man who would shortly become my father-in-law. It was just before I was to report to the draft board after my birthday came up in the lottery. We talked about the differences and similarities between his generationís war and mine. It was a conversation that I will always remember. Soon after starting to play this disc I realized that a filmmaker had somehow captured the very same moment. Different wars were used and the presentation altered to relate a remarkable tale in the most fascinating way possible but emotionally it was the same moment. This was not just reviewing another movie; it was revisiting a very significant time in my life.
The film opens in southern Minnesota. It is Memorial Day, 1995, and Kyle Vogel (Jackson Bond) is thirteen years old. While rummaging through the typical dusty artifacts that accumulate in every garage, basement an attic in the world Young Kyle discovers an old military footlocker. The adult admonish the boy telling him you leave it alone; it was the property of his grandfather Bud (James Cromwell). The family knew that grandpa has never talked about his experiences in the war and no one has every challenged that position. That is until this day. There comes a time in every manís life when he is compelled to relate his life experiences to a subsequent generation. As Bud looked at his grandson he knew that time has come for him. Bud tells Kyle he can select any three items from the aged trunk and he will tell him the story behind them. At this point everyone in the audience is prepared for the obligatory flashback scenes and director Samuel Fischer does not disappoint. This is always were the film takes a turn from the predictable to one of the most emotionally significant films the genre has seen in a very long time. Fischer takes an imaginative element of Marc Conklin screenplay and brings it to life. You expect the stories Bud relates to his grandson to relate to the present but this exceptional team of filmmakers goes well beyond that. Budís flashbacks in Holland are juxtaposed to flash forward scenes of Staff Sergeant Kyle Vogel (Jonathan Bennett) serving in Anbar Province, Iraq. During the flashbacks in World War II Lieutenant Bud Vogel of the 82d Airborne is played by an actor with an uncanny resemblance to the Academy Award winner James Cromwell. Young Bud is portrayed by John Cromwell in his feature film debut. Remarkably this is also the first film for Fischer as director and Conklin as screenwriter. For such an emotionally powerful and well crafted movie to be s freshman opus in itself a noteworthy accomplishment. If this team starts off with a film of such gut level impact I cannot wait to follow their careers to witness the marvels that are certain to follow.
Attempting to recant details of each item is not only futile it would be a disservice to this incredible achievement in the cinematic arts. You just have to experience this movie to understand the goal the filmmaker had and how well he achieved it. The actual objects are classic Macguffins; important to the characters within the context of the story but secondary to the audience. The set the stage for each set of segments placing the characters properly in the appropriate setting but the heart of the film resides in its unwavering humanity and emotional integrity. The script is flawless in how it contrasts two conflicts far from the comfort and safety of home. Each young man is dedicated to the service to their nation and although the specifics of the battles are vastly different the need to serve and survive remains the same. As we watch Lieutenant Vogel you donít see him just as a brave American military officer. You see him as that 13 year old boy listening with undivided attention to his grandfatherís experiences realizing the two now share an unshakable bond that spans the generations. War isnít objectified or glorified. For these two men it is a part of life they are honor bound to endure and desperate to survive.
Having a father and son play the same character at different ages is an old trick but rarely comes off as well as it does here. John did more than inherit his grandfatherís name, a noted director on his own. He has received his fatherís gift as an actor. He gives realism to his part that must make his family proud. This film is less about war than the connection between generations. Bud couldnít open up to his children about the war, the most difficult part of his life but he did need to tell his grandson. S few years after that talk, Kyle would add his own chapter in the family history; an enduring verbal history that will continue to endure. You cannot watch this film without a deep emotional impact and profound effect on the way you consider your own family.