"Memorial Day," the Minnesota-shot independent film, has picked up a number of festival awards, including the audience award for best narrative feature at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival and best narrative feature at the G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
A family saga as much as a war story, it chronicles a generations-spanning Minnesota military family whose servicemen harbor life-changing combat experiences they can't easily talk about.
The story unwinds from the recent past in Iraq, to an idyllic heartland farm in the 1990s, to the bloody Battle of the Bulge. The film offers James Cromwell, the veteran character actor who played kindly farmer Hoggett in "Babe" and the silent star's loyal chauffeur in "The Artist," the biggest role of his long career. He plays Richard Vogel, a taciturn farmer who has a troubled inner life that belies his Norman Rockwell appearance.
For decades he has packed away his painful World War II memories in a dusty footlocker. Only when his coaxing grandson Kyle insists does the old veteran share his long-repressed memories. Cromwell's lookalike son, John, plays Vogel as a worried young lieutenant on the front lines.
A parallel story follows the now-grown Kyle (Jonathan Bennett, who played Lindsay Lohan's boyfriend in "Mean Girls"). Staff Sgt. Vogel applies his grandfather's lessons as he faces similar challenges in Iraq as a member of the Minnesota National Guard's 34th Infantry Division, the Red Bulls.
The $1.2 million production is historically accurate and impressive. The state National Guard provided modern helicopters, Humvees and extras, and collectors of vintage combat vehicles contributed German army halftracks, vintage jeeps and P-38 fighter aircraft.
The film is as plain-spoken and sincere as a recruiting poster, with similar dramatic depth. Director Sam Fischer handles the film's action demands capably and guided the mostly nonprofessional cast to solid performances. The strongest contribution comes from Cromwell, who nails a demanding part, finding a core of realism and truth in a role that could have been maudlin.