Last month I sat down with Adam G. Simon, the writer of the movie, “Man Down” which stars Shia La Beouf as Gabriel Drummer, a Marine combat veteran struggling with PTSD. After serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Gabriel returns home plagued with mental health issues that quickly deteriorate, which inevitably destroys his relationship with his wife and son, completely eroding his sanity and ultimately costing him his life. The movie guides the viewer through a twisting journey from beginning to end while exposing them to the gruesome realities of warfare and the debilitating emotional destruction it can leave in its wake.
This topic is very near and dear to my heart as a combat veteran and has been the primary focus of the project I created in 2010, the Graffiti of War. After seeing this movie, I wanted to know where the inspiration came from and what led him to create this film as it had the authenticity of someone who understood. Through a mutual connection made through the Graffiti of War project, I was introduced to Adam and he agreed to speak with me on a Sunday afternoon.
We discussed our mutual passion, the mental health struggles of veterans, He shared that this film was partly inspired by his interactions with some homeless veterans when Adam was homeless himself. He said that every single day the story “was staring me in the face.”
After one experience with a veteran suffering from PTSD, Adam had to see for himself. “I went down to the VA to do some research, started talking to people. The whole experience of living on the street and coming into contact with homeless veterans on the street, that’s when it started to happen. Man Down is really my frustration at a system that is failing.”
“That is a hard line to walk, to condemn a system without condemning the people within the system. I have been criticized that this movie is anti-soldier, anti-military. It isn’t like one of those movies like Lone Survivor or something.”
Mental health issues and the failures of our society that this crisis illuminates are not a comfortable topic of conversation for most people and perhaps this has something to do with the harsh criticisms that Man Down received. What’s worth more consideration is the fact that this movie has one of the highest rates of disparities between critics and moviegoers with most viewers expressing very positive reactions.
Whatever the reasoning, this movie places the spotlight on the mental health crisis facing military members and veterans of America’s longest running war to date, a spotlight that is long overdue. Unless we can take an honest and objective look at the problem in the light of day, the mental health epidemic afflicting our veterans and military members will continue as will the daily 20+ suicides.
As this film highlights with brutal honesty, mental and emotional deterioration can be a horror show and the solutions are not always effective, but the tens of thousands of veterans who suffer demand our strength of action and films such as Man Down spark a national discussion.
This film was either harshly criticized or completely ignored. Some may say that movies are for escape and that the harsh realities that readily greet us once we exit stage left are best left out in the parking lot. But film is art and art has an obligation to the society it serves, not just to entertain but to influence the lives of the public by changing long held opinions and illuminating the experiences for better understanding, providing a voice to those who may be socially or politically marginalized. In short, art is humanity’s outlet to transform lives, the instrument to inspire society to demand social changes.
Adam Simon’s film rises beyond entertainment and focuses the eyes of society on the dilemma facing America’s veterans afflicted with these invisible wounds. Adam has given a voice to their struggle to influence public perception and inspire real social change. Though Man Down hasn’t been nominated for any awards, its purpose to effect real change in the lives of so many is far more rewarding than any golden statue presented by the Academy. La La Land may have received 14 Oscar nominations, and I believe it earned every one of them; but in serving the greater good of our world, what lasting effect will it have, and what inspiration did it instill? Art as entertainment has its place, but we must not overlook the far more valuable role it has within our culture.