‘Man Down’: War injuries go beyond the battlefield

‘Man Down” is an indictment of war, and its message is one that focuses on its terrible lingering consequences — specifically, veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With many ending up homeless, suffering mental difficulties or becoming suicidal, PTSD is a real issue. According to a 2013 United States Department of Veterans Affairs study, 22 vets take their own lives per day. This a number used in the film, and yet Dito Montiel’s tight, tense tale about a U.S. Marine returning from Afghanistan still manages to hide a tiny fragment of celebration — not of war exactly, but of the masculinity associated with it.

Montiel’s film offers a disturbing but also slightly intriguing view into the mindscapes of two men who once thrived on the battlefield: Gabriel Drummer (played by Shia LaBeouf, whose biggest roles have been as soldiers, including “Fury” in 2014) and his pal Devin Roberts (Jai Courtney, who looks like he was born with triceps and wearing fatigues).

Yet these men are not sadistic brutes with evil in their hearts. They have no particular affection for war-torn landscapes and violence. They love their families and are eager to go home. Yet somehow, once bitten by what can only be described as the “soldier bug,” they find themselves drawn to war in a way they can’t articulate.

Gabriel has a loving family — wife Natalie (Kate Mara) and young son Jonathan (Charlie Shotwell), who clearly love spending time with him. But he joins the marines because Devin wants him to (as if that were a legitimate reason). After months of intensive training, the two board a plane for Afghanistan. Before Gabriel leaves, Natalie asks, with real pain in her voice, “Why would you want to do this?” And he answers with something that borders on nonsensical: He says he doesn’t know why, only that he must go.

LaBeouf goes above and beyond to make Gabriel a compelling figure, but Adam G. Simon’s screenplay gives him relatively little to work with. Gabriel’s apparent overwhelming need to leave his hometown and nice family for a Mideast war zone seems unrealistic: namely that Devin wants to go and Gabriel’s not about to let him go alone. Later, an army psychiatrist (played by a quietly understated Gary Oldman) asks Gabriel about an incident that happened during combat, but Gabriel can only answer, “You wouldn’t understand because you weren’t there.” Devin would understand. He wants only to talk to Devin.

The two friends are incredibly close, but the masculinity of the roles prevents them from even acknowledging the importance of such a relationship. Gabriel is so focused on stereotypical notions of what manhood should look and be like that the need to live up to it winds up torturing him. He can’t even bring himself to say “I love you” to his own son.

So father and son work out a code: “man down” will be their special term of endearment, and they promise to say it to each other, even when Gabriel is thousands of miles away. The words are a source of solace for Gabriel but at a certain point they stop making sense. The story then pushes him into a place filled with brute force and paranoia, by which time he’s past help.

“Man Down” is a 2015 film and in the U.S. it was little seen or appreciated. It’s not a complete washout, though, and the topic of how some men can only find outlets for identity and self-expression in combat zones is worth exploring.

The tragedy of Gabriel is one that many veterans, returning bloody and scarred, find themselves in — still drastically removed from normal society. In Gabriel’s case he can’t communicate with family or friends and feels physically ill at the thought of turning a door knob to enter a suburban living room. The only person he trusts is Devin, but his closest friend is missing. In one scene, behind him, a makeshift sign flaps in the wind: “America, We Have a Problem.” No kidding.

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