The Lucky Ones (Neil Burger, 2008) Every war, every "police action," seems to have its "re-patriation" film. World War 1 had The Razor's Edge, 2—The Best Years of Our Lives, VietNam—Coming Home. The Lucky Ones involves returning troops in the ongoing Iraq War, different from their cinematic (and real) fellow troops in that they're not coming home. They're on a 30 day leave before going back as part of the "stop-loss" program. So, this takes place as more of an interruption to their service. What happens when the environment is not so regimented, or as dangerous. The three come back from the war altered, and all have specific goals in mind, all of which change when they actually touch boots to ground in the States.
It follows three vets—Cheaver (Tim Robbins), an older sergeant just off his third and last tour, T.K. (Michael Peña), wounded, but gung-ho about going back, and Colee (Rachel McAdams), a neophyte coming back with a mission and a hole in her leg. They're all damaged: Cheaver is psychologically out-of-whack; T.K.'s purpose is to get back to his fiancee to see if "his equipment" still works after being wounded; Colee wants to find the family of the guy she hooked up with there and return his guitar to them. Meeting on the flight state-side, they decide to pool resources to get where they're heading. But, like any road-trip, there are detours, changes of plan, and the occasional loss of bearings. Stability is not to be found at home for any of them, and the trip only reinforces the perception that their fellow soldiers are the only ones who've "got their back."
Some of the episodes reach a bit, while some feel natural, and mostly the film avoids easy answers—less than it avoids mention of the war, except for a brief opening scene. The Lucky Ones is less concerned with Iraq, than it is with the soldier's plight, caught in the demilitarized zone of not fitting in either here or there. Putting them on the road—in transit—reflects that sense of rootlessness (as most road-movies do) that these perpetual soldiers must have that is unique to this era's soldiers. The film never really tackles that subject head-on, as it almost has a duty to do, instead relying on the various "missions" and destinations to define the characters. Ultimately, the film has nowhere to go once those stories are used up, and the film ends on a logical melancholy note.
Where it shines is in the performances. As with the war, Burger and his co-writer Dirk Wittenborn are quiet about the soldiers, presenting them as rather independent pawns in a much bigger game, their choices on the road sometimes unconventional, and not S.O.P. But McAdams, Pena, and especially Robbins (this is some of his subtlest work in the past decade and nice to see), breathe a likable humanity into their characters, buffering the moments of manipulation and contrivance. You like these guys and want them to succeed, even if they are a bit unreadable—enough so that some of their choices surprise, even deep into the movie. That The Lucky Ones manages to do that is no small accomplishment.