For Neil Burger ’85, there could be no better time than last Friday to make his voice heard. As senators Obama and McCain debated their fundamental differences on the Iraq War, Burger’s latest movie, “The Lucky Ones,” was released in theaters earlier that day. Unlike the candidates’ distant discussion of strategies and policies, the Yalie director portrays a story about personal suffering and internal conflict. But Burger’s interesting story almost loses its spell as the director tries to combine drama and comedy into a single movie. Trying to achieve too many things at the same time, Burger abandons all verisimilitude.
“Lucky Ones” is the tale of three U.S. soldiers — Colee (Rachel McAdams), T.K. (Michael Pena) and Cheever (Tim Robins) — who return from Iraq to an unfamiliar world full of surprise and disappointment. Each on a 30-day home leave, Colee seeks to return the guitar of a dead boyfriend to his family while T.K. is on a missions to find the right Las Vegas hooker who can cure the effects of a shrapnel injury on the groin. For the middle-aged Cheever, however, a much longed-for homecoming is around the corner as he is planning to reunite with his wife and son for good.
Despite Burger’s efforts to spice up the characters’ stories, the plot takes a predictable turn quickly. When, improbably enough, their connecting flights are delayed for at least two days due to a power outage at JFK, the three soldiers find themselves sharing a minivan to St. Louis. The rest of the story is a stereotypical American odyssey, through which characters learn more about life and themselves. With this brand new knowledge, they are compelled to reevaluate their decisions of enlisting in the first place and what to do next with their lives. Is reenlisting the only choice they have?
While Burger’s trite attempts at comedy can be disappointing, the director succeeds at drama. As soon as they arrive in St. Loius, Cheever realizes that all that remains from his old family life are his mortgage payments and his son’s tuition to Stanford. On the other hand, Colee has no family of her own to go back to, and T.K. sadly doubts whether he will be able to function like a healthy male ever again. As we watch these physically and emotionally wounded soldiers struggling to adapt to society, we are reminded of the vulnerability of the individual soldier drawn into a war. Burger successfully shows that war is never a desired option for a soldier; there are no lucky ones who can actually win in a war.
As Colee, T.K. and Cheever travel throughout the U.S., they are always welcomed for their courage, sacrifice and victory. They face no problems finding a helpful fellow American willing to fix their broken car; they are warmly invited to church sermons and dinner parties; and Cheever can even sleep with a married woman without any objections from the husband, who simply tells him, “You have done so much for this country.” People thank them wherever they go, and they feel assured that this verbal (and sexual) gratitude will follow them probably the rest of their lives. Although the soldiers’ marriages have fallen apart, their lovers are dead, and they will have to bear the mark of serious injuries for the rest of their lives, people will always keep thanking them for saving America.
But is this really what they have fought for all this time? Is this enough to make them the lucky ones?