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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Live Free or Die
by Donald Levit

Embedded in the avalanche of non-fiction films, the biggest boulder may be the Iraqi War and its ramifications. Among the better treatments of the subject and most unusual approaches so far, has to be The War Tapes, the Best Documentary at Tribeca 2006. Co-produced by Robert May and Steve James, who also served as editor, this film was directed via text messages and e-mail from a New Hampshire farmhouse on the other side of the globe.

One result of her Second World War television documentary Stories from Silence, Witness to War, was that experienced TV reporter and independent producer Deborah Scranton received a tender from her state’s National Guard PR people to accompany and officially, i.e., “embedded,” record a unit set for March 2004 deployment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Her counter proposal to arm the troops with cameras, instead, was okayed so long as the prospective combatant-cameramen volunteered for the latter.

Of 180 soldiers she soon addressed at Fort Dix and assured that “we would tell their story, no matter what,” ten stepped forward, of whom five wound up filming their full year tour of duty. Three of these five are featured in her documentary, with seventeen others (whose footage is on the film website and will figure in a projected “companion DVD”) credit-listed as also carrying single-chip Sony miniDV video cameras and mics, mounted on gun turrets or fixed onto helmets and armored vests. Twelve months’ editing has distilled their over eight hundred hours of tape, plus an additional quarter of that amount done Stateside of wives and children, mothers and sweethearts, eventual homecomings and adjustment problems.

Scranton’s feature début, “the first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves,” is chaotic and often night-vision ill-lit, effectively like war itself, mapped out bird’s-eye like football plays in strategy rooms but incomprehensible from the individual participant’s ground vantage point. Added to this is that the grunts in question are “civilian-soldier” National Guardsmen -- forty percent of this country’s hundred sixty thousand troops in Iraq -- with far from unanimous opinions on the military, the war, the White House and patriotism, and the result is a alternative, and an antidote, to the media’s usual picture.

In the infamous Sunni Triangle, these men of Charlie Company, 3rd of the 172nd Infantry (MOUNTAIN) Regiment, reveal themselves, their dreads and doubts and reasons. But this is gradual and natural, in snips here and there, relaxing or facing fire, missing home or witnessing atrocious carnage, joking around or in ultimate fear. There is no self-pity, and although reservations are voiced about others’ enrichment at the expense of their foot soldier’s mortal danger and about the situation of ordinary Iraqis, the speakers do not question duty to country and, even more unequivocally, commitment to fellow troops, “my guys versus them.”

Minus full-throttle special effects from Hollywood, especially as regards sound, the dirty dangerous business of war seems writ smaller -- and thus more individual. Roadside bomb IEDs are distant smoke plumes, constant weapons fire sounds like pops, burning cars are not spectacular, and occasional helicopters are disassociated birds. In expectedly obscenity-laced language, the three central Guardsmen -- Sergeants Stephen Pink and Zack Bazzi and Specialist Mike Moriarty --bring home reality in recalling the smell of fear and burning flesh, the consistency of human meat, shaking a man’s detached hand, or a young girl carrying cookies repeatedly crushed by speeding supply trucks whose image “will stay with me the rest of my life.”

There are few shots of the dead and mangled we know are there. The sole footage censored by authorities involved close-ups of killed insurgents, and it has been replaced by digital photos accompanied by Pink’s horrified reaction. As the speakers are filmed by each other or read from letters or journals, there emerges the foot soldier’s “hatred with a God awful passion” of his job tempered by determination to see it through, juxtaposed with the conventional reflections of their people back in New England.

Nowhere is The War Tapes preachy, nor does it attempt an easy political assessment although it cannot be termed apolitical. Some filmmakers have covered Iraqi citizens, while others have accompanied rank and file U.S./Coalition troops, but here is an important documenting of combatants who are normally “civilians twenty-eight days a month,” directly recording themselves at what is as close to a front as there is in this type of warfare. 

(Released by SenArt and Scranton/Lacy Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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