As an artist, Toby Keith may be best known as the guy who sang about putting a boot up Osama’s ass and stringing up every varmint in Texas (with Willie Nelson riding shotgun). But rumor around Nashville has it that his politics are more complicated than those fist-shaking anthems let on. When you listen to a song like his single “I Love This Bar,” a different, less belligerent guy emerges—one whose idea of America is a honky-tonk where most everybody’s welcome, not just the folks with flag decals. He’s still got that hell-raising edge, only he sounds like somebody you’d like to have a beer with, not keep beer away from.
When Keith’s starring vehicle Broken Bridges (making its premiere Thursday night at a Ryman gala) starts out with “Fort Clarksville” soldiers making a homemade tape, you expect the worst: a sanctimonious two-hour commercial for the Pentagon, brought to you by Ford trucks. But it’s harder to pin down than that. As cornball and CMT-contrived as the movie is, it may be the only mainstream American movie since the Iraq War started (unless you count Joe Dante’s horror comic Homecoming) to depict the conflict purely in terms of coffins, folded flags and grieving families.
Keith plays Bo, a downhill honky-tonker brought back to his Kentucky hometown by a deadly training accident that killed 21 soldiers. The tragedy brings him face-to-face not just with his former flame, a TV host played by Kelly Preston, but also the punky teenage daughter (Lindsay Haun) he never met. Under the hospitality of Preston’s mom—Tess Harper, one of the few cast members who looks completely at ease in her skin—Bo tries to make amends, not just for leaving his ex and missing his daughter’s life but for all those screwed concerts that earned him the nickname “No-Show Bo.”
On the big screen, music-video director Steven Goldmann’s movie plays exactly like projected TV. The script, by Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld, raises, drops and wraps up a season’s worth of conflicts (including abortion and attempted rape) between commercial breaks. As Preston’s hard-ass dad, a funereal Burt Reynolds gets the movie’s worst scenes, including a head-smacker of a tree-planting-as-parenting conversation—and makes them worse.
But Keith, who for some reason picked this glum, penitent material as his starring debut, has a likably abashed big-lug presence. Looming over Preston, he looks like a giant stooping to pick a daisy. And if the movie could use a bucket-sized dose of his records’ rowdy humor—his ideal vehicle would probably be the movie equivalent of his “bus songs”—he’s probably responsible for what nerve the movie has. When a buddy tries to say the soldiers died for America, Bo’s gruff response—that it was “a damn training accident”—is the last thing you’d expect to hear. Laugh all you want, but name another current movie that berates the powers that be, even in passing, for giving U.S. troops nothing but “fancy funerals.”
If only it were in a better movie. Look back at the 1970s, and you find a number of outstanding, hugely entertaining adult dramas that made brilliant use of country music: Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, John Huston’s Fat City, Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces—and that’s not even mentioning Robert Altman’s Nashville, which still has people arguing how country it was. Kristofferson worked with Peckinpah and Scorsese; damn, Willie Nelson worked with Michael Mann, Alan Rudolph and Sydney Pollack. Why should country stars nowadays shoot for less? Maybe this should be the litmus test for country-music star vehicles: would I watch this movie on my own tour bus? Something tells me Broken Bridges isn’t going to dislodge anyone’s copy of The Godfather.