Friday, April 25, 2008
Body of War opens with Tomas Young, a 25-year-old Iraqi war vet and paraplegic. He signed up to fight terrorism in the days after 9/11 and thought he would be sent to Afghanistan. But instead he was sent to Iraq where, after serving less than a week, he was shot in the spine and paralyzed. As the film opens we hear the voices of congressional leaders arguing to give President Bush the authority to go to war, and we watch Young as he tries to go through his daily routine of waking up, getting dressed and pulling himself into his wheelchair. The distance between this young man and the people who sent him to war is well established with this open. The intimacy with which the filmmakers document Young's life pulls us into the film to make this a very personal story.
As the film progresses, we do get to hear one strong voice speaking passionately against the war and against the Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Forces against Iraq (H. J. Res 114) that would hand over the authority to declare war to the president. That voice belongs to veteran Democratic Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. After hearing all the rhetoric from those in favor of the Resolution, Byrd comes on like a welcome breath of fresh air.
Tomas Young in Body of War (Film Sales Co.)
The film then cuts between the senate vote and Young, creating two timelines. The first leading to the 77-23 vote approving Resolution 114, and the second following Young as he develops an increased political awareness and outrage in regards to the war.
In chronicling the senate vote, the film allows Bush and the administration to lay out their case in no uncertain terms. One forceful image they use is the one about the "smoking gun" and the "mushroom cloud." Then the filmmakers cut a montage of senators all parroting this exact image and wording as if they were all reading from the same script. As the film progresses, a counter keeps clicking to record each senator's vote.
Meanwhile, we see Young dealing with his myriad of health issues from being unable to regulate his body temperature to a candid discussion with his wife to be about sexual problems. Young is amazingly willing to let Spiro and Donahue into his life to let us see the long-term ramifications of his injury. We are also shown that his younger brother is still planning on going overseas to fight, and that his parents are growing apart in their political reaction to the war. His stepfather remains a staunch Bush supporter who mocks mother Cindy Sheehan's protest against the war. But Young's mother begins to join her son as he goes to rallies and events speaking out against the war and sending more young people to fight.
Young tries to meet with Senator Feinstein who voted in favor of the Senate bill, but she has her assistant meet with Young and others. (There's even a moment when her staff tries to prevent Spiro from shooting the meeting.) Her spokesperson nods his head, thanks everyone but says the senator is firm in her position in support of the war. Another oddly disconnected moment the film records has Young watching the Correspondents Dinner where Bush made jokes about where the heck are those WMDs? The President's levity is downright offensive to listen to in the presence of Young. But Young is a remarkable man who despite occasional moments of weariness manages to stay focused and dedicated to his cause. He also maintains his sense of humor but in a more effective manner than Bush. At one speaking engagement, Young apologizes for stammering and using the word um so frequently. "Sorry," he says, "for sounding presidential."
Tomas Young at the capital in Body of War (Film Sales Co.)
Based on their credentials, I would suspect that Spiro did more of the nuts and bolts, hands on work while Donahue was more pivotal in guiding the film's content. The film definitely has a point of view and is very clear in presenting it. Some may call it anti-war propaganda but the film never actually tells you what to think. Donahue does not narrate the film and guide us to take on his opinions. Instead, the film attempts to build its case with evidence. The opposition only gets a chance to voice its side in the newsreel footage of the senate vote. But they do get to make their case for going to war. And it's only fair that after they have voted their opinion, that Young gets his chance to voice his. You might be able to leave this film still thinking that America needed to go to war but there is no way you can leave the theater and not be able to acknowledge the heavy toll the war is taking on these young soldiers. Young's story is not being told by the mainstream media. This has been a sanitized war in which the media was even scolded for showing the flag draped coffins of the dead soldiers. There is a price being paid beyond the billions of dollars and Body of War helps to make that price felt in very human terms. Yes Body of War presents a point of view but it does so in thoughtful, measured terms.
Body of War (rated R) is a powerful and effective documentary because it keeps its focus very tight and makes its story vivid in personal terms. It does not try to bash Bush but rather to make a case that congress failed to uphold its duties and to fulfill its responsibilities in difficult times. I'm sure some people will find its approach one-sided but I think it's an important film that people should see as we head into an election and need to consider what we want in our leaders. It's also a compelling portrait of one young man whose life has been forever changed. At the end of the film, Byrd and Young meet to commemorate what Byrd calls the "immortal 23" who voted no. Seeing them together we realize that this film has been a portrait of two very different kinds of American heroes.
Companion viewing: No End in Sight, Fighting For Life, Coming Home