It seems that Michelle Monaghan is always on the cusp of breaking out into stardom, yet something contains her. She often plays the love interest to a bigger star – Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series, Robert Downey Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Due Date, Jake Gyllenhaal in Source Code – or second fiddle, like her subdued turn as Angie Gennaro in Gone Baby Gone or on HBO’s first season of True Detective.
Even with high-profile projects on her plate, she has not yet catapulted to the level of acknowledgement she deserves. In her newest film, Monaghan plays a respected staff sergeant who must choose between serving her country and serving her family. Fort Bliss should have too small of a run in theaters to boost Monaghan’s profile, but an On Demand run could bring the actress the demand (and the bigger parts) she has rightfully earned.
In Fort Bliss, Monaghan stars as Maggie Swann, a clam, steely-eyed army medic. We first see her in a tank rumbling through Afghanistan. When a Humvee in front is hit with rocket fire, Maggie barrels out, escapes some gunfire and runs up to the tank. She finds an injured soldier with a rocket end trapped in his leg and gets him to safety. The only woman in her platoon, she does not just play with the big boys, but saves their lives. Her duty is her passion, but when she returns to her family in Texas, her five-year-old son Paul (newcomer Oakes Fegley) and ex-husband Richard (a smug Ron Livingston) are not around to greet her.
At Richard’s new home, where he resides with new girlfriend Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui), Maggie’s arrival is met without excitement. She says “hello” to Paul, but her son stares back, blankly. In the 15 months she has been away, Alma has adopted the role of Paul’s mom, and this is almost too much for Maggie to bear. She tries to get Paul to warm up to her, but is dismayed that he replaced her with another maternal figure. Before heading to Afghanistan, he gave her a rubber ducky as a memento. When she shows him a photo album she took of the duck in the Middle East, her son responds, “I don’t play with that stuff anymore.” Paul is growing up too fast, and Maggie resolves to stay home and watch him grow.
Of course, Fort Bliss goes down the usual route of films about soldiers devout to the theater of war. While director Claudia Myers’ script is not terribly original, enough of it works due to Monaghan’s terrific performance. She firmly anchors us within Maggie’s dilemma and shows remarkable range in her moments with her son and then with the officers she trains at the army base each day. She is a mother to them both, capably showing tenderness and toughness to create a multi-faceted character. Monaghan does not wear make-up, giving her character a bruised look that mirrors the power of Maggie’s dilemma. She has the stoic grit and emotional capacity of a younger Julianne Nicholson – and any casting director who puts these women together as sisters is a genius.
As for the supporting players, young Fegley is remarkably natural and understands the weight of his role in his mother’s life. Monaghan has terrific chemistry with the young actor and Myers’ script does not force them together in hackneyed ways. Their relationship is tested but the results are true. The other male characters are too slight to impact Maggie’s journey too much. Livingston is fine as her exasperated ex-husband, but despite second billing, he gets little to do. Manolo Cardona, playing a mechanic who falls for Maggie, is fine, but the film would not have suffered without his character around.
Myers wants to portray Maggie as a ticking bomb, but cannot quite find a powerful way to get inside her head until the last half-hour. What Fort Bliss could have used was more access to her thoughts and memories as she struggles with her regrets at home and out in combat. Monaghan does much of the heavy lifting of the slight screenplay, projecting anguish and anger in small bursts. Myers’ script gives Maggie a lot of conflicts that complicate her decision to stay at home; however, while the added conflict does bring suspense and intrigue, Fort Bliss crams several of these subplots in during the last 30 minutes, creating off-balanced pacing and plotting.
The lives of war heroes trying to figure out their lives once they return home is not an original subject, but Myers gives it a refreshing angle: a devoted mom who has to choose between sacrificing her family and her duty for the country. For work, Maggie re-enlists and serves as a temporary sergeant at the Texas army base that gives the film its title. However, we just wait until that plot point when she gets an order to return to the battlefield. As a look at life during peacetime, the perspective is more refreshing than the story beats Myers takes us down. However, Fort Bliss is only as good a movie as its main star, and luckily, Monaghan reports for duty.
Michelle Monaghan elevates an uneven, yet gripping story of a staff sergeant feeling the tug of war in Fort Bliss.