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GUY RAZ, host:

A new movie called "The Messenger" explores the drama that takes place beyond the battlefield. Our film critic Bob Mondello says it's a small film about big emotions.

BOB MONDELLO: Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery is a decorated war hero recently home after surviving a roadside attack in Iraq. As Ben Foster plays him, he's wrapped really tight from stress, post-traumatic or otherwise, and just three months away from civilian status when his commander tells him he must now render some of his most valuable service to his country.

(Soundbite of film, "The Messenger")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As Character) I'm assigning you to a casualty notification team.

Mr. BEN FOSTER (As Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery): Sir.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Character) I just want to make myself very clear that although most of your time will remain occupied by your other duties, CNO is to be your absolute priority. This mission is not simply important; it is sacred.

Mr. FOSTER: (As Montgomery) Sir, if I may.

Unidentified Man #1: (As Character) Go ahead.

Mr.�FOSTER: (As Montgomery) I have never received any grief counseling, let alone given it. I'm not a religious man, sir.

Mr.�WOODY HARRELSON (Actor): (As Captain Tony Stone) We are just there for notification, not God, not heaven.

MONDELLO: That's Captain Tony Stone, a career soldier, recovering alcoholic, and now, Will's more experienced partner. Played by Woody Harrelson, Stone has an easy wit, he seems pretty relaxed generally. But he's firm on the rules for notifications: avoid physical contact, don't talk to anyone other than next of kin, no friends, neighbors, mistresses; and for everyone's sake, park down the block, not in front of the home.

(Soundbite of film, "The Messenger")

Mr.�HARRELSON: (As Stone) You never want to park too close. They hear a car park, go to the window, see two soldiers getting out. It's just a minute of torture. Now, I should warn you, some of them do have guns.

MONDELLO: There are six notifications in the film, and the reactions of family members run the gamut you'll expect: fury, shock, denial, anguish sometimes expressed, sometimes fiercely held in. You've seen these moments before in movies, but the folks who bear the bad tidings have always been on the other side of the door. Here, they're the focus, and that changes things.

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are pretty riveting as the notifiers, especially when they're breaking the rules they have set for themselves, getting involved, say, with a widow after notifying her, establishing that, though messengers with the worst possible message, they remain alive and lively. First-time director Oren Moverman ropes you into their mindset by stages. He looks at their downtime, shows you how they protect themselves from the pain they're delivering, how they keep everything, even each other, at arm's length and how that can't last.

I'm Bob Mondello.

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