2,996 people died in the September 11th attacks. We mourn this tragedy because of the pointless loss of life. We mourn this tragedy because the attack happened on land colonized by people who would one day call themselves Americans. We mourn this tragedy because we were told it was a tragedy.
176,206 people died in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021 in what was first deemed Operation Enduring Freedom. This includes 46,319 civilians. This does not include the countless other deaths indirectly caused by the war from disease, loss of infrastructure, and limited access to food and water. We are not told to mourn this as a tragedy — we are told only to mourn the American soldiers who died defending our freedoms.
Lila Neugebauer’s Causeway tries not to engage with these numbers. They haunt every scene.
The film follows Lynsey (Jennifer Lawrence), a lesbian soldier who suffered a brain injury in Afghanistan and is now tasked with adjusting to life back home in New Orleans. She meets a mechanic named James (Brian Tyree Henry) who is living with his own trauma and they begin to lean on their unlikely friendship.
Lila Neugebauer has long been one of my favorite theatre directors and her attention to performance and stylistic confidence translate to the screen. Jennifer Lawrence went from one of the most exciting young actors to one of the most disappointing and this film feels like a reintroduction. Her quiet emotion and casual charm show why she deserves her stardom and more than that stardom has yielded. She’s matched by Brian Tyree Henry who once again proves that he’s among the best actors working today. James’ entire history is felt in Henry’s eyes. Every moment he’s on screen elevates the film as a whole. That said, he’s playing someone with an amputation and it’s frustrating the role didn’t go to a disabled actor. Two things can be true at once.
They’re joined by a group of actors that show a theatre director’s eye for casting. Jayne Houdyshell as Lynsey’s physical therapist, Stephen McKinley Henderson as her doctor, Linda Edmond as her mother, and Russell Harvard as her brother all give deeply felt performances. If this movie is worth seeing, it’s worth seeing for the acting.
What’s frustrating is that all this good work is in service of a story that’s hollow and sinister. I don’t mind melodrama but pro-war melodrama is nothing but propaganda.
I’m sure some will take issue with me calling the film pro-war. After all, the painful effects of the violence are seen clearly in Lynsey’s physical and mental struggles. But her greatest desire is still to re-employ. The military is her escape from the memories of her childhood, a noble cause to distract from her personal problems. The motives are questioned but the cause itself is not.
Whether or not the war is worthwhile is not the conflict — it’s just whether or not Lynsey is ready to go back. It’s an attempted neutrality that feels anything but neutral. The filmmakers may be more interested in Lynsey’s family trauma and her connection with James, but repeating the false idea that this war is a difficult yet necessary undertaking cannot be ignored. It feels especially obvious when they have James push back on Lynsey’s worldview in so many other ways and not this one.
Art does not need to state its politics bluntly. But Lynsey repeatedly says she wants to be where she can be helpful and the film lets these statements go unexamined. That’s just as blunt as if the film had James question her ideas of helpful.
The film’s conservative streak continues in a heartfelt scene between Lynsey and her brother who is incarcerated. Again, the performances here are stunning. But having a deaf addict say that being in prison is actually better for him is very twisted. Prisons are not rehab facilities. In fact, drugs — often brought in by guards — are rampant in prison, not to mention the other abuses faced by anyone incarcerated and surely exasperated for someone with a disability.
With prison and the military, the filmmakers soften reality in ways that reinforce our society’s most harmful narratives.
Causeway is not the only film coming out this year from A24 about a gay soldier that fails in its attempts at neutrality. Elegance Bratton’s semi-autobiographical, The Inspection, aims to show the abuse faced by a gay Black man training to be a marine during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era. The film is honest in its portrayal of homophobia and racism within the military yet never questions the ultimate cause. It’s another film with great performances, another film that seems to reveal the realities of enlistment, another film that suggests these challenges are worth overcoming to support the American military.
Post-Trump, George W. Bush has been allowed an undeserved reevaluation. He’s been shown as a nice, respectable old man who paints. Barack Obama who continued this war — and the war in Iraq that led to at least 184,382 civilian deaths — is celebrated with the same fervor as when he promised to end these wars in 2008.
The stories we tell about the recent past determine our future. If we allow these wars to be reframed through a queer lens, through a hip A24 lens, we will see their errors repeated. We will continue to spend trillions on defense while leaving vulnerable Americans to suffer and die. We will continue to kill and traumatize so many abroad.
It’s difficult to accept that Lynsey’s pain was for nothing, that the pain of so many real people like Lynsey was for nothing, that the deaths of so many more was for nothing. It’s easier to repeat the lie that it was all worth it. But easy storytelling doesn’t result in the best movies and it doesn’t result in the best world.
Causeway repeats the lie and with that lie washes away the possibility of a better movie, a better world.