Road trips, torture scenes expose war’s truths
Mediacultureby Anna Groff
Two valuable movies from 2007, through fact and fiction, capture how war affects innocent families—those in the United States and abroad. In the beginning of Grace Is Gone, written and directed by James Strouse, a Goshen (Ind.) College graduate and screenwriter of Lonesome Jim, Stanley Philipps (John Cusack) receives news that his wife, Grace, was killed in Iraq.
Grace Is Gone tells the story of a widower—a twist on the expected war story about a widow. Wanting to protect his daughters from the awful, life-changing news of their mother’s death, he experiences grief’s denial stage longer than usual and takes them on a road trip to an amusement park to keep their mother’s death a secret.
Stanley and Grace met in military training, but the army denied Stanley deportation to Iraq because of inadequate vision. So when Grace dies in Iraq, he experiences survivor’s guilt and perhaps humiliation as a father—and not a mother—left behind with children. Stanley also may face his previous jealousy of Grace’s military position.
First the three stop at Grandma’s house, where they find Uncle John, an unemployed 32-year-old who strongly opposes the war but disappoints with his inability to offer any concrete answers.
Strouse avoids establishing a strong political stance in the film but brings home war’s destruction. When John learns of Grace’s death and bluntly criticizes Stanley for not telling his daughters, Stanley, who has just wept alone about Grace for the first time, shoves his brother up against the wall, shouting that he should not be told what to do. John backs down—literally and with his antiwar opinions—and the shoving turns into a shaky embrace.
This scene demonstrates how families with individuals who disagree strongly can still support one another in tragic times.
Stanley’s denial of Grace’s death also reflects our society’s denial of the war. To distract his daughters he spends money on them—letting them pick out new dresses and get their ears pierced. Days pass pleasantly, but nighttime means insomnia for the oldest daughter—effects of missing a parent I had not imagined.
After they visit the amusement park, Stanley asks if there is anywhere else they want to go, but they want to go home. Stanley’s weary face shows that he gradually admits to himself he must tell his daughters the truth. He delivers the news, still telling the girls their mother had an honorable death. This difficult scene moved me, as I often feel emotionally removed from families affected by war. Still, I resonated with the oldest daughter’s question, “But what does ‘duty’ really mean?” Without directly answering that question, Grace Is Gone reveals war’s unfair consequences.
Taxi to the Dark Side, an Oscar-winning documentary, depicts war’s evil by tracing the torture and interrogation methods used by the United States since 9/11. It follows the story of a suspected Taliban, Dilawar—a taxi driver in Afghanistan—who dies of repeated kicks to the leg as a detainee and later is found innocent. Like the Philippses, war destroys Dilawar’s family as he leaves behind a wife and daughter without a goodbye. Disturbing photos of abuse (many never previously released) expose the horrific secrets and dehumanizing practices at facilities in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, where there have been more than 83,000 detainees since 9/11.
During the interviews with now-convicted front-line guards and interrogators, I felt pain and regret as they told of the pressure for results but vague guidelines from U.S. government officials, who refuse to take responsibility for what happens at these facilities but pass blame to those beneath them. The investigations of tragedies like Dilawar’s have looked down to the soldiers but not up to the commanders. The film also exposes the faulty nature of physical and psychological torture, which brings inaccurate results that lead to more wartorn families and nations.—ag
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