If war is hell—and the Iraq War a special circle of it—then the docs emerging from it should be more than mere records of military valor. Viewers may be feeling dulled by the steady stream of Iraq-related testimony, most recently HBO’s squirm-inducing Baghdad ER. But look closer, and the real reason eyes are glazing over may be a reticence on the part of filmmakers to take sides, when that’s exactly what this conflict demands.
The War Tapes is, finally, the film to pay attention to. Directed by Deborah Scranton (operating stateside) and edited by Hoop Dreams’ Steve James, the chronicle puts MiniDV cams in the hands of three uncommonly articulate soldiers—not grunts, but National Guardsmen with civilian lives they leave behind for one-year tours. One of them even reads The Nation; another calls himself a “substantially patriotic person,” the kind of wry self-description that invites our investment.
What do we see them do in the combat zone? Protect towns? Hunt down insurgents? Nope. They mostly guard the massive convoys of KBR-Halliburton trucks carrying oil. “KBR annoys me,” says one of our guides, and it’s an understatement, as the trucks take heavy shelling and the soldiers are traumatized by the unwitting human roadkill they create with their speeding Humvees.
The three guardsmen, all of whom survive, suffer mightily: nerve damage, post-traumatic stress, demoralization. “This better have been about money, and not just for Dick Cheney,” one of them spits. It’s a coda that sends the film, a worthy winner at last month’s Tribeca Film Festival, into must-see territory. (Opens Fri; Landmark Sunshine.)—Joshua Rothkopf