Fort Bliss, written and directed by Claudia Myers, is a military-focused movie you have never seen before. The film takes an unapologetic look at serious issues faced by female soldiers in the United States military, issues that I have barely seen addressed before (besides maybe Return). In fact, from the film’s heartbreaking opening Homecoming ceremony scene to its final scene, it is obvious that Myers has a story to tell and concerns she wants to bring to the forefront of public consciousness. Whereas many films have explored the experiences of male combat veterans returning from war, few have tackled the experience from the viewpoint of a female soldier.
Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan) is a stoic Army medic and single mother who has returned home to Fort Bliss (El Paso, Texas) from a 15-month deployment in Afghanistan. However, her homecoming is not the joyous occasion one might expect. Because she was gone for so long, reuniting with her young son Paul, who was in the custody of Maggie’s ex husband, is strained; he barely recognizes her. Paul is comfortable with his father and his father’s live-in girlfriend, so Maggie’s reappearance in his life is an unwelcome change. Maggie not only has to deal with these issues at home, she also has to mentally heal from trauma sustained downrange. As time progresses, her familial situation starts to get better, but the life of a soldier is never stagnant. Will new orders from command make Maggie have to choose between her job/country and family?
Although we have seen Michelle Monaghan excel in such projects as True Detective, Mission Impossible 3, and Source Code, her performance in Fort Bliss is the best of her career. Monaghan’s fearless, layered portrayal of such a complex, realistic character is the heart of the film and brings so many issues and questions to the forefront. Like actual soldiers, Maggie is faced with an incredibly difficult work/life balance. She loves her job and is incredibly good at it, is responsible for the lives of many fellow soldiers, and is dedicated to her country. However, the life of an active-duty soldier does not allow for the “traditional” relationship between a parent and child. Plus, there is the added social stigma that women should not be away from home for a long time since they are “the caretakers.” How can Maggie maintain a close relationship with her son while also continuing to work a job she loves? More importantly, why is she being made to choose between the two?
I am such a fan of Fort Bliss and the conversations it will most-assuredly create. This week, Lauren Veneziani (DCFilmGirl.com) and I had the opportunity to talk to Michelle Monaghan about the film and the important issues it addresses. Michelle is incredibly sweet, insightful and passionate about supporting and giving a voice to the problems faced by our members of the military. We talked about how she trained to play an Army medic, the role the Department of Defense had in providing assets for the film, the obstacles female soldiers have to face when it comes to work/life balance, and much more! Check out the interview below and make sure you check out the film on VOD this Friday (September 19).
Lauren B. (ClotureClub.com): I absolutely loved the movie and your performance in it! You were fantastic.
Michelle Monaghan: Thank you so much!
Lauren B.: Fort Bliss is a film that focuses on the military. Did the Department of Defense have a big role in providing assets for the film?
Michelle: Yes they did. We were so fortunate. Really, it’s a testament to Claudia Myers, our writer and director, in all of the research she did. She spent five years making documentaries and training videos for the military. Throughout that process, she interviewed soldiers and heard about their issues with reintegration and coming home from being deployed. The theme was the parenthood, the high divorce rate of women and men. She had done all of that research and did such a great job writing the script that she was then able to hand it to the State Department and she said, “Okay. Would you actually allow me to take this [film] and allow me to shoot it at Fort Bliss?” They read it and said “Yeah!” They gave her a few notes here and there. Everything was so detail-oriented. We really wanted to do everything from the soldiers’ perspective. We wanted it to be authentic. So, everything was Army standard specifications and told from a soldier’s perspective. When I got hold of [the script], I had complete and utter faith in her because she had done all of her homework and we had [military] approval.
Then we went to Fort Bliss and I was able to go through an intensive medic training class, which was amazing. Actually, I think it could prove beneficial for me just in life! I was really happy to do that, to learn something like that and it ended up being really integral to the character, sort of learning that intensity, focus and pressure that someone would experience as a medic. Obviously, it’s a percentage of what they actually go through but it helped me get a glimpse into that life. Then what was so invaluable was having access to the soldiers, and the women soldiers in particular, talking to them as moms and really hearing what their struggles were and what their emotional states were and are… really just appreciating the challenges and gauging that so I had an emotional understanding and confidence to then portray or convey their experiences in a very honest and truthful way. It is something I took so seriously, I really did. It was so important to me because I am portraying a story that is maybe not that familiar to civilians. It wasn’t familiar to me. It enlightened me, which is why I wanted to share the story. It is very common to women in the military. There are over 200,000 women in active duty; 40% of them are moms. This is something that happens, so I didn’t want to do a disservice to them. It was a huge responsibility for Claudia, myself, and everyone involved to do it the right way.
Lauren B.: Yeah! I’ve never seen these issues tackled, especially for female [soldiers], in a movie.
Michelle: Yeah! Stories about female veterans are nearly absent from our culture! They’re completely non-existent. Women are the largest, fastest-growing vet community among soldiers. This is not going away and [Fort Bliss] really tackles traditional roles. That’s why women also have one of the highest divorce rates in the military because men at home don’t know how to handle what it’s like to be left at home, which is also another reason I think the storytelling is so great because you align yourself with these different characters. These are characters that are all making sacrifices and they’re all doing the best they can in a really imperfect world. I think that’s why [the film] is resonating with people, in the corps audience and civilians.
Lauren V.: Going off of that, there is a really good quote in the film that Maggie says, “If a man is going away for work he’s taking care of his family, but if a woman does it she’s a bad mother.” What do you hope military moms are going to take away from this movie? Do you think they will be thrilled that you’re tackling this subject matter?
Michelle: Yes, I hope so! The women I’ve met are good at their job! They love their jobs. They want to serve their country and they’re devoted mothers. It’s so funny how we have to project this attitude. It’s not just in the military, it’s a common theme. You have to be one or the other. Whereas with men, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation right now. You are a devoted father if you go away and provide for your family. But [some perceive it as] you’re being a “bad mother” if a woman does it. I think it’s a very honorable thing for anyone to do, just as honorable for a woman, to go away and serve your country and come home and tell your kids, “Mommy is really proud of what she does.” As moms and dads, all we want is a job or career that they’re proud of and you can be an example to them. I would like the dialogue to… it opens people’s eyes! I think people aren’t even conscious of the way we think sometimes. I hope this sheds some light on that idea. I think it’s a really big misperception that people have.
Lauren V.: There are obviously some very physically demanding scenes, and you’re very fit, but did you have to do anything super physical?
Michelle: You know, I did a little bit. I had the privilege of running PT with the soldiers. I get goosebumps thinking about it, the singing…I will tell you, I was absolutely a nervous-wreck before I did it because you have to get up really early in the morning and then you run. I was thinking, “Oh my gosh am I going to be able to keep up with them?!” They were just awesome. It was so empowering. It was a wonderful experience and I made it! But, I will say, carrying all of that equipment… I really tip my hat to everyone! That heat! It is not an easy feat. Yeah, I had to do some physical stuff but NOTHING compared to what they’re used to. It’s hard work, physically demanding, emotionally demanding, mentally demanding. It really gets you on every level.
Lauren B.: You were talking earlier about how you trained as an Army medic. Can you talk a little bit about that course?
Michelle: Yeah! It was a couple of days and we rehearsed every scene that we were going to do. So, in the opening scene, there’s a part where you do a body check and you do, ‘Where’s the blood coming from?’ I used a tourniquet an inserted an IV…we learned all of that. Then I had a line of very brave soldiers that allowed me to put in a needle and put in an IV, which was really exciting for me. Those are all things you wouldn’t normally do, but I was really appreciative because what that taught me was a trust, a particular trust that platoons have for their medics… for “Doc.” It’s an integral part of a unit, as anyone can tell you, but it was also so informative for me as a character because it made Maggie needed and depended on and proud of what her job is at home. She felt as though she would be letting down her platoon, people she spent 15 months with time and time again, if she wasn’t there. It really just compounded the dilemma she had.. that her heart was really torn between these two worlds.
Lauren V.: I particularly loved the scene at the end where Maggie hugs Paul because at first you don’t know what’s going to happen. You’re a mom. Do you take any of your personal experiences when you go into these roles?
Michelle: 100%! I think that’s also one of the reasons why I responded to the role too, because there’s that universal theme of trying to balance parenthood and motherhood. Certainly in my line of work, I don’t have to leave for 15 months with the risk of not coming back, but I can emotionally appreciate what it’s like to leave home for as little as a few weeks and still feel guilt, yet proud of what I get to go do. Claudia is a working mom as well. I just felt like this story not only represented them but represented me in a small way, and parents in general! I love how stoic and proud [Maggie] is and how all of these women are also incredible vulnerable, nurturing, devoted women and you don’t have to be one or the other. You can be all of these. I think any man can tell you that age-old saying, “Behind any successful man there is a strong woman.” It’s so true. I look at all of the women that are in my life and inspire me. They’re strong women, but they’re funny. They are incredibly nurturing and loving human beings, but they’ll stand up to you and are independent. I love this story because it’s all-encompassing of an every-day woman.
Lauren B.: And I also liked that there wasn’t a giant ribbon around the ending.
Michelle: Exactly and I think that is also a reason why people are appreciating [the film] and it’s resonating with people because it shows we live in a grey world. Life isn’t black and white. It’s really, truly people doing the best they can with what they have or don’t have at home. I think it’s been profound for people to see and watch that way. The fact that the corps audience responded in such a positive way and feel it’s an authentic depiction of their experience has been incredibly gratifying. It’s the ultimate compliment we could ever ask or intend for.
Lauren V.: I can’t imagine how it is to take on a role like this because you don’t want to do them wrong. Is it harder to take something on like this where there is more truth to the role as opposed to a completely fictional character?
Michelle: That is such a good question because sometimes I am looking back now and I still can’t believe I decided to do this.
Lauren B.: It’s a lot of pressure!
Michelle: Yes, a lot of pressure but I am more inspired by something that seems completely challenging or unbelievable. Becoming a truck driver [in Trucker], I was like there is no way I can drive an 18 wheeler! Then I was like, “oh yes I am!” It’s that and I find that is such a privilege to be able to put myself in someone’s shoes. I think the challenge is so great and daunting and I am so scared of it, I push myself to the nth degree to make sure I do it to the best of my ability. I feel like a character that has a lot of truth to it is easier to connect to because it feels attainable. Even if they have a different life than you or a different job than you, you still feel with the same emotions. So you say, “Let me try to put myself in your shoes, do the research necessary for that outer shell, because emotionally I can make it truthful. If I do my work there, then that is my job and I know how to get to the heart of it.”
Lauren V.: Even in True Detective, you’re still a mom but you have a lot of other stuff going on!
Michelle: Yeah exactly!
Lauren B.: So what do you think happens to your character when she gets back from deployment?
Michelle: Well that’s a great question. I think that she comes back after… I think there is a new self-awareness that she has now and respect for her ex-husband. I think she will go away for 15 months, come home, and I don’t think she’ll have as many issues this time. She has emotionally been through it and can work through it a bit more.