“Fort McCoy”: Spending World War II in Wisconsin

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“Fort McCoy” is now playing at Point Cinemas. Not rated, 1 hour 41 minutes, two stars out of four.

The term “labor of love” might normally seem like a cliche, but it applies in spades to Kate Connor’s “Fort McCoy.” Connor, who wrote, co-directed and stars in the film, created the drama out of stories her mother told about living with her family in 1944 on the Fort McCoy military base near Sparta, Wisconsin. Not only were thousands of soldiers stationed there, many on their way overseas into hellish combat, but the base also housed a large number of German and Japanese POWs.

This waystation of war, far from the front lines yet deeply affected by it, seems like rich material for a movie — maybe too rich. Connor packs in a lot into 101 minutes, from the horrors of war to aw-shucks romance, from broad comedy to marital drama. All of it is given a nostalgic, old Hollywood-esque glaze that feels a little schmaltzy at times, and sometimes at odds with the grimmer aspects of the material.

Connor plays her grandmother, Ruby Stirn, who has come to Fort McCoy with her husband Hank (Eric Stoltz). Hank’s German heritage already makes him feel an outsider in World War II America, doubly so because he has a heart murmur that keeps him from enlisting. The best he can do in the war effort is to serve as the base barber, giving soldiers, as he puts it, “maybe the last haircut they’ll ever have.”

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Around them, subplots abound. Ruby’s young sister Anna falls for a Jewish soldier (Andy Hirsch) traumatized by his war experiences, while her daughter Gertie (Gara Lonning) strikes up a friendship with a German boy (Josh Zabel) behind the wire. Then there’s another romance between a war widow and an eager young recruit. Meanwhile, an unshaven SS officer, still in uniform, skulks around, clearly up to no good.

It’s a lot to pack into a movie, and some of it works much, much better than others. The romance between Anna and Sam is very sweet, for example, but did we also need another subplot within a subplot about how the local priest (Seymour Cassel) won’t officiate a mixed marriage? At times, “Fort McCoy” seems less like a movie than a season of a TV series in which all the episodes are happening at the same time.

However, the film does have some lovely, understated acting, especially by Connor and Stoltz, and the cinematography, shot on location in La Crosse and Tomah, is lush, full of overripe colors and wistful slo-mo. And the film is full of fascinating period details, such as the bombers performing target practice by dropping flour sacks on the Stirn household.

Connor might have learned a little something from those flour sacks. While “Fort McCoy” is certainly an heartfelt ode to family history and to a bygone era, it should have stripped out the subplots that didn’t hit the target.

 

 

 

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