The 2018 film Indivisible opened in theaters nationwide on Oct. 26. It is based on the true story of Army Chaplain Darryl Turner and his wife Heather. The film follows the Turners through the Chaplain’s first deployment to Iraq and back.
When reviewing a film based on a true story, there are two ways to go. One is to watch the film and compare it to the source material for accuracy of whether or not it reflects a true picture of the subject. The other is to watch the film strictly on its own merit as a piece of entertainment and make observations on that basis.
Turner’s story is not well known and wouldn’t allow the same historical veracity/fact-checking scrutiny compared to films like Lincoln or Saving Private Ryan. So, the first option is out.
What follows is a review of the film Indivisible strictly on the basis of what is presented on screen as a film, rather than an extension of the conversation the film is trying to create.
An Army Iraq Deployment Story
Directed by David G. Evans, Indivisible shows the complete arc of Chaplain Darryl Turner’s notification to deploy to Iraq as an Army Chaplain and back. While serving in Iraq, Turner’s compound is attacked. He experiences close calls on patrol runs with his unit. Darryl begins to develop the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of these near-death experiences and watching others die in combat.
When Turner comes home, his symptoms affect his home life and career choices. The Turner family begins to suffer as PTSD symptoms take their toll as they often do on interpersonal relationships. The film invites us to wonder if the characters will make it through these PTSD problems. It doesn’t take long before we are presented with a restored version of the Turner family. Chaplain Turner takes another forward deployed assignment with Special Forces.
At the end of the film, we are led to believe that Turner becomes someone who has come to terms with his PTSD issues and can now return to the work he started as a chaplain.
Indivisible: A Message Movie
What is not apparent from the description of Indivisible above is that it is presented as a “message” movie. From the opening of the film with its grade school class Pledge of Allegiance recital to the final moments, Indivisible has a major flaw which seriously impedes the film. It is not quite as interested in telling Darryl and Heather Turner’s story as it is using that story as a springboard to have teaching moments about American Christianity.
This results in what could be described as “divided loyalties storytelling.” The writer and director don’t concentrate on the story 100% in order to give adequate space to these teaching moments. The film suffers as a result.
There are many flaws in Indivisible. The film wants to be pro-military and pro-family. It also seems to want to have a conversation about military chaplains and PTSD. Strictly within the context of the film itself (and not the larger true story of the real Turner family), the presentation of these things leaves much to be desired.
Presenting The Military Family on Screen Isn’t Easy
One failure of the film is its presentation of the left behind military family community who must deal with the emptiness a deployment can bring. Every single one of the families depicts left behind wives and parents coping with the departure of a loved one to Iraq. Not a single husband is depicted as the one remaining at home while a deployed spouse serves overseas.
It is entirely possible that the historical Turner family didn’t have any civilian husbands left behind. But that’s a plot point a good writer and director should anticipate, especially since it’s easily fixed with a few lines of dialog. Not all viewers may notice this in the film, but for those who do it’s hard to ignore.
The picture of combat thrown on the screen during the runtime of Indivisible is likewise fairly unrealistic. Is the warfare and consequences in the Indivisible world accurate? Mostly bloodless, tame, and again, without accurate representation.
Insurgents are shot with heavy-calibre weapons and just fall down. Later in the film when important characters die, they leave the film off-screen. But we’re still expected to respond to these developments in a visceral way.
Not that you need the Saving Private Ryan type realism of exploding body parts and acres of gore to prove your point. But the conceit of Indivisible is that it wants to depict how the horrors of war have changed the young Army chaplain by damaging him beyond his own ability to cope alone.
But here, war is whitewashed and robbed of any power to provoke a genuine reaction except in a clichéd, action movie adrenaline rush.
On Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
This film does one thing quite successfully. It accurately shows, however briefly, some of the most difficult symptoms of PTSD. Those symptoms of emotional withdrawal, anger, sleeplessness, and paranoia are the ones family and friends respond to the strongest both on screen and in real life as they are unprepared for this condition.
Indivisible manages to let this shine through and is one of the film’s few qualities presented effectively. Playing Darryl Turner, actor Justin Bruening’s struggle to understand his own condition rings truer than any other aspect of the movie.
Indivisible spends a great deal of its screen time setting the stage for Turner’s return home to cope with the aftermath of his deployment. By the time he gets there, not much running time is left to deal with the issues PTSD raises in the movie.
Up against a two-hour runtime, the film has to gloss over the treatment of Turner’s mental health issues. This leaves the viewer with an impression that the filmmakers truly believe that a few visits to the base chaplain and some cursory family counseling are what you need to overcome PTSD if you have “the right attitude.” Whatever writer/director David G. Evans and his co-writers had in mind, the wrong impression is left on the screen in the final act.
The film shoehorns a happy ending in the form of Turner and family reunited. This is presumably post-PTSD and happily preparing for a new round of military service. Let’s pause to remember that we are discussing the developments of the film alone and not discussing these issues in the context of the real-life Turner family. The film seems to want to imply that the faith of the Turner family is responsible for Chaplain Turner’s seemingly new PTSD-symptom-free life.
But as any PTSD sufferer knows, the symptoms of this condition do not go away overnight, next month, or next year. The film chooses to gloss over this. It’s entirely possible that the film was shot with far more exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder, but wound up on the cutting room floor. But an experienced director should know how a prolonged set-up deserves an adequate resolution. The end of Indivisible feels forced and leaves the impression that the movie simply runs out of time.
Indivisible represents a wasted opportunity. It is possible to make a good faith-based film that presents a certain kind of worldview without pandering to its audience or glossing over important aspects of the subject matter. But this particular movie seems to want to pretend to be a movie about PTSD all the while serving a totally different end game. If the film had committed to being a strictly faith-based message movie, it would have emerged in a much different way for better or worse.
But masquerading as a military-themed movie with a PTSD story forces the filmmakers to ignore an old adage regular Bible readers will know quite well. “A man cannot serve two masters, for he will either hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”
Indivisible would work far better with a solid storytelling commitment to either the faith-based aspects of the real life story or the exploration of PTSD as a consequence of war. Had the film another 60 minutes or so, it may have accomplished both to some extent. But a three hour message film is likely a harder thing sell.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year Air Force veteran and an experienced filmmaker. He has written film reviews and articles about cinema for Daily Grindhouse, HorrorHound Magazine, Indie Slate Magazine, and many other publications. Wallace was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2017.
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