“Causeway” Is a Queer Military Story That Ignores the Cost of War

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.


Before you go! It costs money to make indie queer media, and frankly, we need more members to survive 2023As thanks for LITERALLY keeping us alive, A+ members get access to bonus content, extra Saturday puzzles, and more! Will you join? Cancel anytime.

Join A+!

Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew Burnett has written 308 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Look. I am married to a veteran and it isn’t as tidy as everyone would like it to be.

    Just because someone else’s experience and desires don’t match with your own ideals doesn’t mean it’s not an authentic experience or that it’s “propaganda.”

    My partner joined up because they believed in the United States, correctly or not.

    They experienced tremendous violence and trauma, but were also conditioned to love the order and predictability of being given orders. When we were so poor we weren’t sure we could pay our rent, they spoke of going back sometimes.

    Veterans are asked ALL THE TIME to stand up for or against their military experience, when in truth, it is almost always complex. It isn’t fair to ask the grunts to continuously tell their stories in a way that makes civilians more comfortable with their own ideas about how the world “should” function.

    Please, for the sake of my sensitive, kind, thoughtful partner, who hates a “rah rah” military movie more than anyone else, allow veterans to tell their stories, which can be uncomfortable in their non-conformity to how you want things to be. Not because veterans “deserve more” but because they deserve as much as anyone else.

  2. the premise that shooting, bombing, torturing, and occupying brown people is helpful (???) or that gay g.i. jennifer lawrence’s devotion to redeploying goes unquestioned boggles the mind.

    the other day a queer white coworker revealed that she aspired to joining the marines in high school, which i found unfortunate but understandable. then she bragged that, as a volunteer firefighter, she helped the police break into someone’s apartment for a wellness check. that was the real twilight zone moment for me: after all the horrors that we have witnessed, this authoritarian streak runs buck wild through so many queer americans.

    to be brown in this country and to watch in slow motion as people appeal to that impulse as if i can relate is so disconcerting. in person or as an audience member, i simply could not give them what they want from me, even if i tried.

    • nobody asked for this, but i should probably clarify: i don’t think veterans are inherently more evil or thoughtless or less innocent than other people. i do think that the united states military as an institution is an inherently colonial and abusive project by design, from the top down. its leaders have demonstrated their commitment to this project from the trail of tears to the constant and blatant violations of the war powers resolution by presidents across the political spectrum.

      i am sure that veterans have deeply personal and meaningful reasons for wanting to redeploy, which is why i find it unfortunate that pursuing that goal requires the absolute concession of their agency to an abusive colonial machine–especially one which historically and consistently fails to serve their goals, convictions, or best interests.

  3. I read this review because I was curious about the film. After reading it, however, I find myself slightly annoyed with your take on the military and those who serve. I do not know your background but I am the adult child of a United States Marine (Ret.). My father, a black man, is a Vietnam War veteran who served this country for over 22 years. I grew up on military bases and around people who are much more thoughtful and honorable than your review suggests.

    My father, who still suffers from PTSD, will be the first to tell you that war is not glorious and that those who champion it probably never had to fight. Based on your review, it is not clear why Lawrence’s character is adamant about returning to war. I can tell you that every Marine, Soldier, Sailor, and Airman I’ve ever known would tell you they go back for the ones they left behind. They go back to complete the mission. They go back to bring their friends home.

    I know first hand that not every service member is honorable. The ones who are deserve our support. If this film is attempting to show the trauma of war from a Veteran’s perspective then I’m ok with it. I would, also, welcome any film that depicted the toll war takes on those civilians whose homeland has been occupied. The military, like every other entity, has problems it needs to fix. For those who don’t know, Congress declares war. Politicians decide where we go and how long we stay. Often times their agendas do not align with the tasks or goals of our troops.

    War is unfortunate but necessary because the Putin’s of the world exist. There have been and likely will always be those kinds of people. And it is necessary to have people who are willing to sacrifice everything to protect us from them. We have not always gotten it right. Our government has been just as destructive, unrelenting, and oppressive as the next. The result of our government’s tyranny was 9/11. I won’t know if your assertion that this film is suggesting war is good until I see it.

    I could go on but I’ve probably said enough (for now). Like you said, it is complex.

    • You said: “War is unfortunate but necessary because the Putin’s of the world exist”. But it wasn’t. The Iraq War was entirely unnecessary, started on false pretenses, and resulted in the torture, death and displacement of thousands. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news but the U.S. has a lot more in common these days with Russia than any supposed “bastion of freedom”. Patriotism blinds people.

  4. Pinkwashing wars is not okay. Pinkwashing nationalism is not okay. Pinkwashing one of the most damaging military industry complexes seen throughout history is not okay. If you change the uniform to that of any other nation-state throughout history who instigated an unjust, disastrous and murderous conflict, the resulting distaste and anger should be THE SAME. Just because it’s “your team” doesn’t mean you should be making excuses or taking offence when this is pointed out.

    Thank you for this review Drew. I’m tired of the type of film that comes out about Afghanistan/Iraq: the focus on the individual and how they have suffered completely – insidiously or not – takes away from the theatre to which they went because any moviemaker knows that making an honest film about those conflicts as a whole would not be possible. Literally. It would be shelved before anything happened because in no way would a movie being honest – thereby critical – of those conflicts would even be financed in the budget/star-ladden Anglophone world. I don’t think this will change any time in the future and that this will continue be the angle at which they try and rehabilitate this conflict – through weaponizing idpol, which makes it even harder to take. Why make meaningful movies about queer and/or disabled people and their lives when you can spend all that emotional capital on that thing that’s supposed to bring us all together – killing more brown people, but getting sad while doing it and, in this movie’s case, itching to get back out there and do it some more (cause if this character HAS been over there, there’s no way “help” could mean any other thing). It’s not like there are ANY real stories of queer and disabled people out there, just living their lives and not killing people. Nope, no sir, no siree.

  5. Your review is thoughtful and well-written, but I don’t agree with a lot of it.

    1.) I don’t understand how you can call Jennifer Lawrence’s career “disappointing?” She’s 32, has taken a few years off for her family, and still has carried more “good” roles & films than almost any other actor her age. She doesn’t always choose the best roles, and she’s been honest about that, but it doesn’t mean she’s been disappointing. What even is that?

    2.) I don’t feel like this movie pinkwashes anything about the war. My takeaway is that you have a poor woman who grew up in a shitty household and feels she has absolutely zero other chances of creating a normal life if she were to stay in New Orleans, and has no means to go anywhere else but back to the military— the life she knows and the life that got her out of the house.

    Honestly I feel like ignoring that is ignoring the plight of the thousands of people who join the military for similar reasons. Not everyone has the luxury of thinking more broadly about the pros/cons of the American war machine.

    I thought both performances were great. The movie itself I would have liked more story. The run time was only 74 minutes. I feel like with even 8-12 more minutes, it would have been 🤌

    • The military industrial complex preys on the most vulnerable. Absolutely. But it’s incomplete and insidious to tell that story without acknowledging that this is in service of financial gain and increased power for a select few rather than the myth of American safety. And there have long been films that show the struggles of soldiers while almost never acknowledging the harm they cause once coerced into this system.

      As far as Jennifer Lawrence goes, I think we just disagree about the word disappointing. It’s not personal. I’m just referring to the same industry traps she herself has discussed.

  6. I thought the scene where she visited her brother was key – he said he felt better in prison than the real world. Wasn’t that also a correlation with how she felt? The military was her prison – as bad as it was, she was not coping well outside. I don’t think it had a particular pro-war stance as I felt this was the point. It was more of a commentary on her than anything to do with the army.

  7. You say, “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.”

    They’re not unexamined. The film presents alternating viewpoints through other characters, and it’s overted that Lynsey joined the military to escape lack of opportunity. You missed the obvious parallels drawn between Lynsey’s brother’s feelings about prison and her feelings about the military.

    Speaking of which – I’ve known a lot of folks who’ve been in prison, many of whom have had disabilities and/or substance misuse issues. I’ve heard the same sentiments expressed by Lynsey’s brother from many, many of them. For you to describe that as “twisted” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of their experiences. It might be difficult to understand for someone who has had more opportunities how someone could feel safer in prison. I’ve had people tell me that they feel safe and reassured by the structure and routine. It’s hard to fathom, and I’ll agree it’s tragic in some ways, but that’s the reality. It’s not for anybody to judge.

    This review was also disrespectful to the countless queer men and women who’ve fought in the military. Read some more queer history, and learn how many women joined up to escape heterosexual marriage and find one another. Same for men. This issue is way more complicated than you’re painting it – so perhaps it’s not surprising that you didn’t enjoy this movie, which refuses to make simple judgements.

    I loved this movie – I’d encourage anyone to watch it if they want to see an excellent character study.

  8. Your worldview is disturbing, I was not a fan of the war from the start but you give no credit to those that have given much so that you could live free. If you don’t think you are free try visiting the middle east.

Contribute to the conversation...

Yay! You've decided to leave a comment. That's fantastic. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated by the guidelines laid out in our comment policy. Let's have a personal and meaningful conversation and thanks for stopping by!