‘This is Not a War Story’ Centralizes Trauma and Hope

This is Not a War Story opens with a young man wandering through the subway in New York, popping more and more pills. He fades gradually, finally slumping over on a subway seat to be discovered by a transit worker. He’s Timothy Reyes, an Iraq War veteran mentored by Will (Sam Adegoke), another veteran working through trauma. Will is taking part in an art project in which veterans make handmade paper from old uniforms and use it for drawings, paintings, poetry, and books. In the aftermath of Timothy’s death, Will struggles with his guilt, complicated by the arrival of Isabelle (writer/director Talia Lugacy), a former Marine MP dealing with PTSD, who begins fixates on him. Through the production of art and the building of their personal relationships, the pair attempt to work through their past traumas and build their own future

This is Not a War Story is an ambitious project, eschewing some of the more popular “war film” tropes in dealing with its subjects. The cast is a combination of professional actors and actual veterans, giving certain scenes a near-documentary flavor, and the story does not provide easy or lasting resolutions for its characters. In her introduction, Isabelle walks with a cane that she abruptly folds and hides in her ever-present backpack. Even when she’s in the presence of other veterans, she’s nearly silent, evading questions about her service. She’s fearful of smartphones and GPS, and struggles to form lasting connections. When she latches on to Will, it’s with a sort of desperation, as she attempts to find a way to express emotions and experiences that she’s repressed.

This is one of the few films in recent years to deal with the intergenerational trauma of war—the focus is on Will and Isabelle, both veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and their developing relationship, but the secondary characters and discussions deal with World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, among others. In addressing the fact that there are no “good wars” and that all leave a lasting mark on the people who fight them, the film becomes a proper anti-war drama, but by highlighting the two characters involved in the most recent US wars, it also draws the viewer into the present day. This is the reality of many soldiers and combat veterans; they are still fighting, dying, suffering, and killing themselves, and we generally ignore their existence. It brings oft-forgotten incidents to the fore, as characters recall Abu Ghraib and its aftermath, the fall of Fallujah, drone strikes, and the recession of the anti-war movement after Obama’s election.

This is Not a War Story also attempts to grapple with the artistic production of literal war stories, in film and in art. The veterans express their experiences via art, while the film itself attempts to tap into the experiences of those who have returned from war. But there is also a subtle mockery beneath it—Will makes fun of the war film trope of the combat veteran flashbacks, while later he tears into the romanticization of war in Saving Private Ryan. Most of the veterans represented are resentful of the wars they participated in, grappling with having killed innocent people fighting for causes they didn’t believe in, or even ones they did. One of the most intense sequences involves a story about a woman thanking Timothy for his service, as Will reflects on the violence he has committed, wondering what, exactly, he is to be thanked for.

The crux of the film involves many stories—the veterans themselves are telling stories via art, but they also tell stories to each other as they cut up uniforms to make paper. War permeates their existences; trying to build a bedframe is interrupted by music that recalls too much sadness or violence, going to a bar or riding the subway is a struggle, sleeping with your boots on is the norm. There is no romanticization of war nor trauma here; these are not people suffering romantically, but unable to speak or express their own pain or desires. As Isabelle and Will mumble their way through conversations, there’s a building sense of isolation—they want to connect, but struggle to find the words or the actions to ever feel completely human.

This is Lugacy’s second feature film as a director, but there’s little evidence of that—it’s an accomplished, intense drama, without flourish and without sentimentality. While there some moments are drawn out a little too long, with long passages of silence and awkward struggles with self-expression, the narrative never really drags. Though This is Not a War Story deals with trauma, there is also an underlying hope to it—that the characters it depicts might be OK, that they can learn to connect to each other, that they cannot banish their trauma, but might be able to live with it. That, perhaps, is all we can really ask for.

This is Not a War Story is available to stream on HBOMax.

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