Unabashedly patriotic films don’t come along often anymore, but when they do, they show no qualms announcing their allegiances. Such is true of Fort Bliss, the promo poster of which centrally features the prim-postured silhouette of its proud sergeant protagonist, Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan), with a flag badge slapped on her arm and a nonspecific excerpt of mother-son bonding superimposed within her head. The implication of the composition is explicit: Serving one’s loved ones and serving one’s country need not be mutually exclusive. Take it from Maggie: “I love my son and I love my country…I don’t think I should have to choose between them.” Fair enough: Like any good soldier, here’s a film that doesn’t talk back to its sergeant. Throughout, it’s marked by a sturdy alignment between its generic filmmaking and its noble subject, the trajectory of its plot seemingly mapped magnetically to her point of view.
That means we’re trained on the tomboy Texan for better or worse, both during an uplifting montage of her showing off military gadgets to her toddler son, Paul (Oakes Fegley), and during a third-act scuffle with a devious black man—lit by menacing neons as he noodles carelessly with a handgun—slated to become her replacement if she backs out of an encore term in Afghanistan. As established in the opening scene, a high-stakes mid-combat rescue mission in the heart of the Middle East, Sgt. Swann is an ace medic who puts fellow male trainees to shame, and she gets a certain kick from authentic boots-on-the-ground experiences (like The Hurt Locker, this is a film that fetishizes combat as something akin to a narcotic fix). But a lingering sense of guilt leads her back home to Paul, who’s spent the bulk of his development with the wife of Maggie’s ex (Emmanuelle Chriqui) as his maternal figure. Understandably, she’s greeted by rejection.
Fort Bliss’s dramatic crux is Maggie’s tenuous negotiation between the domestic life and motherly role she’s trying to reassume in Texas and her persistent attempts to satisfy her professional urge. Banal indications of internal conflict abound: Monaghan frequently defaults to raising her voice or strenuously running her hand through her hair, external signposts of interiority hysterically underlined by moody backlighting, the sparse décor of her newly purchased home and a somber, Gustavo Santaolalla-aping score. A hopeful love interest comes in the form of a Mexican beefcake hilariously tattooed with the tag “The Future,” but Maggie’s call of duty ultimately wins out, at which point the film offers its most egregious affronts to narrative plausibility and psychological honesty. In a miraculous aligning of stars, Maggie gets everything her way: a desired leadership role in a return trip to Afghanistan, a disapproving ex (Ron Livingston) suddenly turned accommodating, and a son projecting an impossible display of tender humility in the face of yet another abandonment.
Fort Bliss is writer-director Claudia Myers’s sophomore feature, and it comes on the heels of a string of short documentaries elevating the individual experiences of U.S. soldiers, the latest of which, Women at War, hints at the quasi-feminist leanings of this fictional effort. It’s apparent from this career trajectory that her interest in the personal lives of those in the military is nothing less than genuine, but it’s also clear that the complicated psychological realities of army personnel require a tougher directorial treatment than the maudlin melodrama presented here. Committing to a high-stress existence of obligatory geographical displacement means accepting an estrangement from domestic realities as well as the possible denunciation of those living such realities—something this film, which leaves us with an image of little Paul bearing his white teeth as his mother drives off, isn’t prepared to deal with.