Memorial Day unfolds in several decades as an injured soldier recalls the afternoon he spent listening to his grandfather's war stories. James Cromwell, a consummate gentleman in films like The Green Mile and I, Robot, is the best part of Memorial Day, and his stern, weathered grandpa is a captivating character in an unmemorable film. The scenes with Cromwell are few and far between, and the rest of Memorial Day spins it wheels as an unconvincing parable of honor and sacrifice.
SSGT. Kyle Vogel (Jonathan Bennett) is injured in combat, and shares with a young Army nurse (Emily Fradenburgh) his memories of the day he found his grandfather's World War II footlocker. Grandpa Bud Vogel (Cromwell), a lieutenant in the European campaign, suffered after the war and is particularly prickly with his grandchildren. Young Kyle (Jackson Bond) picks at Bud's gruff exterior, and gets his grandfather to tell him several stories about the items in the footlocker. For each item Kyle removes, Bud tells stories of its significance, and the film flashes back to a younger Bud's (John Cromwell) time in combat.
The pieces of Memorial Day with Cromwell and Bond will likely hit home for many curious grandchildren with relatives who served overseas. Bud is downright nasty when his granddaughter breaks a vase accidentally, and the film hints that the war took its toll on Bud's psyche. Bud makes it clear by his actions that he doesn't relish the time with his rowdy grandchildren, but he and Kyle share a special bond. Kyle pushes Bud to discuss items like his side arm and the effects of fallen comrades, and flashbacks reveal Bud has been stifling painful memories for several decades.
The rest of Memorial Day is less convincing. The elder Kyle struggles with the loss of soldiers under his command, and the stress seems to trigger painful headaches, though Memorial Day never fully resolves this plot point. The Iraq-set combat scenes are heavy handed and mostly used to explain Kyle's injuries, and WWII-era scenes are similarly generic. I did like one sequence where Bud is upset by fellow soldiers who shoot German prisoners, and Memorial Day might have been a better film had it focused more on such wartime dilemmas.
I hate when films use patriotism to blind audiences to otherwise insulting characters and narratives. Memorial Day has its share of problems, but it at least feels sincere in its respectful portrayal of the ups and downs of military service, and this gives it a leg up over most military themed dramas. The bookends with grandfather and grandson are effective, but Memorial Day never commits Kyle to a path different from Bud's. Memorial Day touches on interesting themes of sacrifice and grief, but is too pedestrian to spark much discussion.
The 1.78:1/1080p/VC-1 transfer from Image is fantastic. Shot with a Red One digital camera, Memorial Day is bright, clear and highly detailed. Shots display almost startling depth, and every bead of sweat, tattered uniform and blade of grass outside Bud's house is crystal clear. The digital image is grainless, but the monochrome color scheme of the WWII sequences makes those shots feel grittier. Black levels are decent, and backgrounds are extremely deep. I only noticed very minor banding in a couple of outdoor shots.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack has excellent clarity, and the quiet front-porch sequences of Kyle and Bud are as impressive as the combat action scenes. Dialogue is clear and well balanced amid effects and score, and the track makes frequent use of the surround speakers and subwoofer. A 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also included, as are English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
In the Commentary with Director Sam Fisher, Writer Marc Conklin and Actor John Cromwell the participants stick to discussing what's on screen and offer little insight into the project's origins or personal experiences with the military. The disc also includes Behind the Scenes (1:54/HD), which is a reel of on-set footage sped up to almost unwatchable speed. There appear to be some interesting shots here, but they are all but wasted when presented in this baffling format.
Memorial Day is a sincere if forgettable drama in which a young soldier recalls his grandfather's war stories. Scenes of veteran actor James Cromwell discussing his experiences in World War II with his young grandson are the most compelling part of a film that relies on clichés and blunt themes of honor and sacrifice to entertain its audience. Rent It.