Admittedly, I am not normally a fan of military type movies. Being a rebel anarchist at heart, I am not the most patriotic person. For me, protesting political corruption and rejecting societal norms and standards are the best form of patriotism. However, there are thousands of others that believe fighting for my right to do that is the ultimate form of patriotism. Regardless, this isn’t another political article about civil liberties or pushing a political agenda, this is just a harmless review of a movie starring an adorable and talented, curly haired former Disney kid, that just happens to tackle some pretty serious subject matter.
Man Down is a movie that tries to give you a realistic look at a problem that has been plaguing our troops for decades. Whether you call it shell shock, battle fatigue, or combat exhaustion, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a serious issue with long lasting and debilitating effects. Unfortunately, it commonly goes untreated and is often seen as a dirty little secret when it comes to the military. Advertising this as a common problem or side effect combined with the inefficiency of federal support our veterans are receiving, is not exactly the greatest selling points when it comes to recruitment. Hence why this movie has been made for 2 years, struggling to find a distributor and someone to back them and give them a release date.
During that struggle, actor Shia LaBeouf who stars in the film as Gabriel Drummer, showed the movie at small theaters hosting Q&A’s after, trying to start a dialogue not just about the movie, but the subject matter itself. LaBeouf, whose own father is a Vietnam vet that has struggled with the condition himself, made it clear that this movie was personal to him and that he not only was very proud of it, but was grateful for the chance to do something meaningful. Come on Shia, what is more meaningful than saving the Earth from alien robots?
All joking aside, this film is not your typical military feature. Instead of focusing on camaraderie, patriotism, or the heroic attributes of a few good men, it brings a more human aspect to things. The movie is told through the eyes of Drummer as he sits for a meeting with Captain Peyton, played by Gary Oldman. We flash back and forth throughout the movie, touching on basic training, deployment, family life, and the desolate country he returns to. You never even realize you’re watching a story about a soldier dealing with PTSD. We are made aware that he has gone through some kind of incident in Afghanistan involving his lifelong best friend and self-described, battle buddy, Devin Roberts. This incident is the driving force behind the meeting with Oldman’s character. As the movie plays out, you start to wonder what happened in that room and what role it played in the current state of America that we see Dev and Gabe returned to.
The movie opens with a disheveled Labeouf finding his son in a desolate bedroom and essentially saving him from some form of danger, the details of which aren’t made clear until later in the movie. In this dystopian type setting, the U.S.A. has seemingly suffered some form of bio terror attack leaving little to no survivors. Throughout the film, we intermittently flash forward to scenes of Dev and Gabe roaming this bleak landscape, desperately searching for Gabe’s wife and son, played by Kate Mara and incredibly talented newcomer Charlie Shotwell. During the Q&A after the screening, LaBeouf had nothing but praise for the young actor and his ability to handle intense emotional scenes early on in the movie’s production. Handling those scenes as an audience member was tough enough, so I too was impressed.
But the actor who truly stole the show and took you along his emotional journey was none other than LaBeouf himself. While his personal tabloid-esque exploits and his often misunderstood neurotic demeanor has garnered him his fair share of haters and naysayers, there is no denying that the man is talented. His eyes alone display so much raw emotion and feeling that you can feel the tension as he dreads his deployment and the effect it is about to have on his family. The close ups on his face during his scenes with Oldman are so intense and believable that it made me want to get up, go find him, and give him a hug. You can feel his internal struggle and his attempt to deal with everything that’s happened without letting it impact him. He perfectly portrays that moment of weakness when you are fighting to find your strength and telling everybody and anybody that asks or attempts to reach out, “I’m fine.” It is such a common human condition that the majority of us go through, yet we rarely talk about.
Man Down isn’t about the current political climate, it isn’t about glorifying military life, nor is it about disparaging the people that volunteer to put their lives on the line for the benefit of others. It’s about the human side of dealing with traumatic experiences. It’s about realizing that a condition we often joke about or write off as people just being “crazy,” is very real, very serious, and just as destructive mentally as diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. More importantly, just like the types of mental illness we associate with old age, it damages more than just the life of the person struggling with the condition. Its reach goes far beyond that and takes its toll on the people closest to you.
Clearly, this is something that LaBeouf understands first hand. He has dealt with it in his own family and drawing on those experiences helped him to deliver an extremely raw and powerful performance. The movie is well written and beautifully shot in a way that doesn’t reveal what’s really happening until the very end. Throughout the film, you know that Gabe has witnessed something awful during what is referred to as ‘the incident,” and combined with the scenes of a Post-Apocalyptic America, it builds the tension enough that you know there is something more going on but what that is, isn’t made obvious. Instead its drawn out in such a way that you never see it coming and when the true perspective is revealed and we see the larger impact and truth that Drummer is dealing with after his homecoming, you are so invested in these characters that you can’t help but be overcome with empathy for everyone in the situation.
Personally, I think this film and its lead actor scream Oscar potential. Yes, I believe it was that good. It doesn’t rely on an overly complicated plot or over the top special effects. Instead, it rests its weight on the people in the story. It allows the audience to bond with the characters and go through these experiences with them. It is absolutely one of the realest things to come out of Hollywood in a long time. This film reminds us that no matter how different we are, we can all understand the experiences of the human condition. Rarely do films leave me feeling as impacted as this one did, so much so that I avoided giving you too many story details and encourage you to go experience it for yourself. How often do we get a chance to see former Disney Channel child stars grow into talented actors of substance and not just another marketable face or paparazzi princess? If you’re looking for a film that delivers a real human experience rather than just a holiday jar of fluff, Man Down is exactly what you’re looking for.