Like the big-budget thriller Green Zone, which is also opening this week, Kristian Fraga’s documentary catapults us back to the chaos of Iraq circa 2003. But instead of action figure Matt Damon, we get garish, staccato images and hard-bitten voiceover from First Lieutenant Mike Scotti; Fraga worked with the marine’s own MiniDV footage and journal entries, like a one-man War Tapes. Soldiers goofing off or kvetching, locals grinning or threatening, sprawling desert landscapes with burnt-out wrecks—everything zips by our eyes, thanks to the director’s penchant for editing together footage of mutilated corpses and tense gunfire way too snappily.
That’s arguably the point of most real-life wartime depiction—all extreme content and sheer sensory overload—but you don’t have to sell material like this, and the filmmaker, who hooked up with Scotti by chance, acts like a kid in a YouTube candy store. The soldier’s relentless reflections, sometimes spoken as if spat out, don’t provide much respite: It’s the equivalent of a being trapped on a long ride with the requisite cynical-joe philosopher in a fictional war movie. There’s a wealth of raw experience captured here, in every sense of the word, but Severe Clear still gets bogged down in a paradox that’s not uncommon in documentaries: insisting we’ll never know what fighting is like, but peddling a style that seems designed to baffle deeper understanding.