“Promise you won’t die” says little Paul to his mom in “Fort Bliss” before she sets off to work. Written and directed by Claudia Myers, “Fort Bliss” is the so very realistic look of what it’s like for a parent to leave his or her family for a long period of time and how difficult it is to reconnect once the parent is home. It’s not a new story—it’s been explored to some extent in this year’s CBS show, “Extant.” However, the subject has never been done as well or effectively than it is in “Fort Bliss.”
“Fort Bliss” revolves around Staff Sgt. Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan), back from her tour of duty as a medic in Afghanistan. She has a five-year-old son, Paul (Oakes Fegley), living with her ex, Richard (Ron Livingston) and his girlfriend, Alma (Emmanuelle Chriqui), in Texas near Fort Bliss. Once back in Texas, she struggles to reconnect with her son who barely remembers her, resents her for leaving him in the first place, and is not thrilled at her return if that means being separated from his father and Alma. But Maggie is not one to be messed with, be it ex-husband, the military or a five-year-old. So off the two go to begin their new lives together.
Unbeknownst to her ex, Maggie has re-enlisted, but is not supposed to deploy any time soon. In the meantime she takes on a new assignment at the base—training new medics. With her smarts and take-no-prisoner attitude, the men quickly warm up to her. Her personal life takes an unexpected turn when her stalled car leads Maggie to a chance encounter with mechanic, Luis (Manolo Cardona). He wins over Paul easily with his humor and promise of Texas Rangers tickets; Maggie is a tad harder to figure out. What begins as a sexual release for her starts to turn into something more as Maggie very slowly begins to open up to Luis, but even so, neither of them are sure where it all is going. “Fort Bliss” goes into overdrive when Maggie’s unit is informed that it will be deploying back to Afghanistan sooner than expected. That is when all of the relationships that Maggie has formed and is forming come to a head.
The “Fort Bliss” cast comprises familiar, hard-working actors, but not real stars. They give their all to this film and it shows. Michelle Monaghan, seen in season one’s “True Detective,” nails Maggie’s temperament and range of emotions. She’s positively brilliant. Ron Livingston is terrific as the exasperated, put-upon-feeling ex. His character is no saint, but Livingston is very good at conveying how difficult Maggie’s 15-month tour has been—not just for their son, but for him, too. Manolo Cardona’s Luis is just the right match for Monaghan’s character and the two really work well together. Emmanuelle Chriqui is also excellent as Richard’s girlfriend and Paul’s future stepmother. Representing the good, the bad and everything in between of the military are Pablo Schreiber, Dash Mihok, Freddy Rodríguez and Gbenga Akinnagbe. None of their parts are written in stereotypes and the actors bring shadings to their individual roles to make them all feel genuine. Finally, there is yet one more child actor who almost steals a movie, and this actor is Oakes Fegley as Paul. He is absolutely amazing. How someone so young is truly able to act and form real connections with each character is astounding. His scenes with Monaghan are particularly good as he goes from resentful, obstinate son to a truly loving, caring human-being, whose “promise you won’t die” plea will resonate long after the movie ends.
Claudia Myers has written and directed a skillfully realized story. It feels so very real. No character is a stereotype…no character is all good or all bad. They are simply human—warts and all. While her story is about Maggie, the Military Mom, it could just as easily be about a returning husband/father or just an ordinary spouse/parent with a demanding job. The film is a deeply honest look at homecomings no matter the home.
“Fort Bliss” is a shining gem of a film and well worth seeking out in theatres or On Demand.