Producer-turned-director Irwin Winkler's well-intentioned drama about a group of U.S. soldiers who return home traumatized after tours of duty in Iraq starts with a bang and ends in a long, protracted whimper. Just as the members of a National Guard unit from Spokane, Washington, learn that they're finally scheduled to return home, they're sent out on a routine escort mission to the nearby town of Al Hayy. It's basically a humanitarian run the soldiers are there to drop off much-needed medical supplies and a doctor designed to foster goodwill among the increasingly resentful Iraqis, but soon after arriving in the city they find themselves trapped in a narrow street. Heavily armed insurgents open fire on the convoy, and the survivors return to Spokane with deep psychic wounds. Private Vanessa Price (Jessica Biel) suffered the most obvious physical damage, having lost her hand to a roadside bomb. After several weeks of rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Vanessa returns to Washington and attempts to resume her life as a single mom. But she finds everything has changed. Will Marsh (Samuel L. Jackson), the medical doctor who saved Price's life, returns to his quiet practice, faithful wife (Victoria Rowell) somewhat obviously named Penelope and the son (Sam Jones III) who hates the war and resents his father's decision to volunteer. Dr. Marsh turns to drink to cope with his son's hostility and the memories of all those he couldn't save. Private Tommy Yates (Brian Presley) is tormented by the fact that he was unable to save the life of his best friend, Jordan (Chad Michael Murray), who died in his arms in an Al Hayy cemetery. His attempts at consoling Jordan's widow (Christina Ricci) with platitudes about duty to one's country fall on deaf years, but Tommy may be able to save Jamal Atkins (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) after they meet at a veterans' outreach program. Before he was injured in a fall, Jamal accidentally shot and killed an unarmed Iraqi woman during the Al Hayy firefight, and his troubled conscience is now further aggravated by the run-around he's been getting from the Army when it comes to his disability services. Jamal's guilt and frustration lead directly to an explosive confrontation at the fast-food restaurant where his ex-girlfriend works. Embedded deep in the corny and clumsily staged scenes, unintentionally laughable dialogue ("Here, let me give you a hand," someone says to the one-handed Price after she drops a pile of papers) and unnecessary flashbacks are some important insights into the difficulties returning soldiers face. Beyond the recognizable symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder depression, sleeplessness, irritability, self-destructive behavior many must contend with the feeling that, even after only a few months of fighting, they no longer belong in their own homes. Winkler and first-time screenwriter Mark Friedman cover all the bases, but good intentions aside, it's hard to recommend such a thin, cliched fictionalization when so many good documentaries THE WAR TAPES, THE GROUND TRUTH feature the voices of actual soldiers.
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