Man Down

 

            “Man Down,” as the Marine Gabriel Drummer (Shia LaBeouf) patiently explains to his young son, Johnathan (Charlie Shotwell), is military slang for when somebody in the unit gets wounded, and the paramedics need to come help him.  Gabriel is dropping off Johnathan at school, and Johnathan has told his Dad that he's being bullied, but doesn't want his Dad to go out there and “fix it” for him.  He says it all started because his Mom, Natalie (Kate Mara), told him she loved him in the hearing of the other kids, who made fun of him for being a Momma's boy.

            Gabriel loves his son, and says that he wants to be able to tell him that as he leaves the car to go to school, also, but maybe they need a special phrase, just between each other, that means the same thing.  They decide on “Man Down.”  It's their special code phrase for “I love you.”

            Later, back on base housing, Johnathan is old enough to pick up the cues when his Dad is getting ready to leave for Afghanistan again.  His Mom is sad, too.  But Gabriel explains that he feels obligated to his buddies back there, even though his best friend, Devin (Jai Courtney), is staying behind for a while because he put his arm through a window and it's still healing.  That kind of injury should have been a clue, that PTSD was already beginning to loom over our stalwart soldiers.  But so far, they'd felt invincible together, they had each other's backs, they were fighting for their country, and all that hard work in training camp was paying off.

            Yes, we have flashbacks to the training camp, where the classic Drill Instructor does his usual verbal abuse routine, constantly yelling at the recruits, pushing them physically as well as emotionally, and constantly telling them how worthless they were, as a rough way to teach both self-reliance and obedience, as preparation for the difficulties of being sent to the front lines.

            Except that the front lines weren't really a classic battlefield situation, where the enemy was in uniform, lined up in front of you, and it was very clear who were the good guys and who were the bad guys.  No, this was different.  This was that awful urban/guerilla warfare where the civilians can suddenly turn into militia, but you don't know where the attack is coming from, and you could drive over an explosive device any time, and you don't speak the language, and the culture bewilders you, and your unit is an unwelcome part of the hated foreigners, the occupiers.  It's the kind of situation that can make your mind play tricks on you, and where you can be suddenly confronted with a volatile situation that appears benign, but could quickly turn violent at any time.

            Gabriel and his buddy Devin find themselves stranded in a strange part of town because of an equipment breakdown.  Their little squad is on the lookout for any suspicious activity, but so far they only see civilians peeking out of the windows.  Until suddenly the formerly peaceful setting erupts in explosion and gunfire.  The squad takes hits, and casualties.  They see the gunfire is coming from a second-story window in the next building, so they do what they were trained to do:  they move forward to neutralize the danger.  But what they experience there is the nightmare they had all feared.

            Gabriel survives, physically, but mentally, he's not the same.  He tries to shake it off, and move forward, but he's been ordered to see a counselor.  The sessions with Counselor Peyton (Gary Oldman) are frustrating for Gabriel, who feels that anybody who hasn't been there can't possibly understand.  And in a way, he's right.  And in another way, he's not going to be “right” if he doesn't deal with this.

            This one's a gut-wrencher.  The viewer sees things from Gabriel's perspective, which means that things are not what they appear.  But what is clear is that PTSD is part of the uncounted casualties of sending our soldiers to such a horrific war zone.  There are precious few good outcomes.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  Have you known someone with PTSD?  How was it handled?

2)                  Why are we in Afghanistan in the first place?  When should we leave?

3)                  What happens when your spouse becomes someone you don't recognize?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association