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Memorial Day’

Gabriela Leskur | Monday, January 28, 2013

Hollywood, from time to time, will come out with a war film full of pomp and circumstance that makes us think, “Wow, that’s cool.” A quiet, awe-inspiring movie theater will fill with the noise of battle as great special effects, heart-wrenching storylines, lots of Nazi butt kicking and extraordinary acts of valor light up the screen.

It’s easy to forget while watching such a movie that for many Americans with family members serving in our armed forces, war is much more than that.

1991 Notre Dame graduate Marc Conklin’s touching film “Memorial Day” does well to remind us of that fact.

At the beginning of the film, a young boy, Kyle Vogel, finds a footlocker of his grandfather’s, hidden away in the family barn.

As he opens the box, the contents are nothing more to him than meaningless objects.

“Memorial Day” illustrates through Kyle’s bond with his Opa (“grandpa” in German), that the objects in the footlocker are treasured souvenirs and represent memories of World War II.

Young Kyle Vogel chooses three souvenirs from his grandfather’s footlocker and each formerly inanimate object comes to life as Opa recounts his days as a soldier.

Kyle Vogel looks expectantly at his Opa on this hot Minnesota Memorial Day – counterintuitive, I know – and poses an important question with the footlocker at his feet: “It’s Memorial Day. What am I supposed to remember?”

At first, this may seem like a silly and cliché question. Yet, I am ashamed to admit, I was just as clueless as little Kyle Vogel as to what I am supposed to remember.

Heart warming and at times heart wrenching, Opa tell his grandson the horrors of war and voices his hope that Kyle will never have to experience war for himself. However, as an adult, Kyle is deployed to Iraq. It is there that Kyle truly appreciates the lessons of his Opa acquires souvenirs of his own.

The truth is that though our country holds our veterans in high esteem, many times their experiences and the immeasurable value they hold are never shared. For the people who have actually gone to war, it is far more difficult to share their stories than it is for us to watch them fictionalized on screen.

What allows for “Memorial Day” to abandon the stereotypes of the modern-day war action film is that the plot centers not simply on what happens on the battle field, but how those crucial moments of war affect soldiers even when they have returned safely home.

“The truth is that times change,” Conklin said in an interview with The Observer. “The theaters of war change, the equipment changes. But a soldier’s basic experiences have a continuous thread that binds them together.”

The film not only forms an obvious and impenetrable bond between Kyle and his Opa, but the film’s road to production and sudden rising fame display the impressive bond the film has made with audiences across the country.

Veterans Jeff Traxler and Kyle O’Malley, two men of imposing stature who had both fought for the United Sates, approached Conklin with a simple plan for a film: two generations, two wars, one story.

Conklin explained at first he felt he was not fit for the job. When asked, “Do you have any military background in your family?” Conklin responded, “Sir, I’m holding a latte.”

And yet, a latte-loving Minnesota screenwriter and two vigilant war veterans took an unorthodox war story and brought it magnificently to life against all odds. With no funding and a lot of heart, the small film grew to include Academy Award-nominee James Cromwell (“Babe,” “The Artist”), the assistance of the Department of Defense and permission to use restored original World War II fighter planes.

The independent film went on to win Best Narrative Feature at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival and Best Feature at the G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C. – all from an amazing story from an ordinary Opa on Memorial Day.

“Most vets actually want to tell their stories,” Conklin said. “They’re just waiting for someone to ask, even to insist. And it almost doesn’t matter who’s on the other end of the conversation, just as long as they’re listening.”

“Memorial Day” is a perfect way to start the conversation and start listening.