By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 30, 2005
Movies, someone said, are life with the boring part cut out. "Occupation: Dreamland" turns that calculation on its ear: It's a movie with the exciting parts cut out.
That is to say, its formal subject is something rarely covered in more glamorous examinations of the phenomenon of war: the utter, draining tedium of the whole business. We are with an element of the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah not as it fights its way from house to house but as it meanders its way from week to week to week to dreary, desolate week. One GI even admits to enjoying the vagrant AK-47 round or rocket-propelled grenade that's winged his way because it breaks the monotony.
The filmmakers Garrett Scott and Ian Olds embedded with the famous paratroop unit for six weeks in the early months of 2004; it was their journalistic bad luck but personal good luck to leave when the parachutists did, and neither the 82nd nor Olds and Scott were on the scene in the spring when the Marines took over, the lid blew off the simmering fly-speck on the road to nowhere from nowhere and pitched combat broke out, leaving dozens of grunts and more than 600 Iraqis dead.
That's not the war, then, that Scott and Olds got to see: They got to see the war of roommates -- seven to a room, no fun at all -- and long dull, tense walks in the sunlight and slums.
The kids are all right. Really, you can't see these films (the other recent up-close-and-personal doc of the war was Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker's "Gunner Palace") without loving the young Americans at the spear's tip. They don't want to be there, of course -- who would? But they seem committed to doing the job and they believe in the structure of the Army, its traditions, its rules. This isn't Yossarian's army, and it's not Oliver Stone's; it's a new Army of capable, committed and quite decent young guys.
What I found interesting about the film, far more compelling than its vague lefty slant and occasional crude ironies, was its revelatory sense of anthropology. For example, it's clear that the culture of the first squad of Alpha Company of the 2nd Battalion of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment (that's quite a regiment, if you know your airborne history) is, excuse me, rural white. This is in marked contrast to the artillerymen-turned-cops in "Gunner Palace," where the squad culture was definitely culturally black, rap was the primary musical expression and all the guys, regardless of shade or hue, had a ghetto swagger.
The paratroopers are your basic good ol' boys. Their music of choice is headbanging heavy metal (one sergeant was in a band, and the filmmakers found some old footage of him, and cut between the lean baldy he's become, with the Airborne Ranger patch, cool shades and heavily gadgetized M-4 he carries with the longhair Metallica lookalike he once was). Also, we are talking big-time dip here. I guess an army travels not on its stomach anymore but on its dip? You don't know what dip is? Dip as in -- I'm not sure how this works and I don't want to know more, thank you very much -- a glass or cup or bottle everyone carries, all the better to expectorate some lubrication from that lump of God-knows-what (snuff, I think) that they have packed between their gum and cheek. And these are the officers!
Anyhow, dip packed, magazines full, knives sharpened, M-4s locked and loaded, night-vision monoculars cantilevered into place on those quasi-Nazi Kevlar helmets they now wear, the boys go out every night and day and look for and seldom find fights. The movie watches them interact with the local Iraqis and discover the two highly refined skills: lying and acting affronted when caught lying. But when you watch these interactions, you think: What's the point? And when a kid says, "I hope somebody smarter 'n me got this [expletive] figured out," you think: that's the best piece of political analysis since George Orwell wrote "Politics and the English Language."
I think "Gunner Palace" was in some sense a fairer film: It covered the intelligence section as well as the raiders, so we had some sense of why the raiders went to House X instead of House Y. "Dreamland" stays entirely at the squad level, and so we never know what information somebody higher up the chain of command is acting upon; it all feels, therefore, arbitrary, even existential, certainly pointless. You feel trapped on a Moebius strip going nowhere, been nowhere.
Occupation: Dreamland (78 minutes, at the Warehouse Screening Room) is not rated; it contains vigorous soldier's profanity.