By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 17, 2006
It's not who attended Monday's screening of the war documentary "Baghdad ER" that disappointed the film's producers, but rather who didn't. The National Museum of American History's theater was mostly full -- of civilians.
Only a few rows were filled by men and women dressed in the crisp, olive-drab uniforms of the U.S. Army. And that was a huge disappointment and a potent symbol for HBO, the network that produced the film -- a harrowing look at a combat support hospital in Iraq -- which will debut Sunday.
HBO executives say that top Army officials expressed enthusiasm for the documentary in March, but that the Pentagon's support has waned. They believe the military is troubled by the film's unflinching look at the consequences of the war on American soldiers, and that it might diminish public support.
The documentary, shot over 2 1/2 months in mid-2005, contains graphic and disturbing footage of soldiers reeling from their wounds -- in some cases, dying of them -- as Army medical personnel try to save them. The film illustrates the compassion and dedication of the staff of the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. But it also has many gruesome images, such as shots of soldiers' amputated limbs being dumped into trash bags, and pools of blood and viscera being mopped from a busy operating room floor. At one point, an Army chaplain, reciting last rites for a soldier, calls all the violence "senseless."
"Maybe people [at the Pentagon] feel the truth will discourage people" from backing the war, Sheila Nevins, president of HBO's documentary unit, said after the invitation-only screening. "The film certainly tells you what could happen in a war, but it's also about the heroism, courage and dedication of our troops.
"I can't quite figure out their reaction. I was hoping this audience would be covered in green."
Pentagon spokesman Paul Boyce said the Army went to great lengths to support the HBO project, including giving filmmakers prolonged and intimate access to the hospital. It also made the soldiers featured in the film available for media interviews and hosted screenings on 22 military installations.
"We believe [the film] is a very thorough representation of the professionalism of the military medical community, and reflects the ethos of our soldiers," said Boyce, who attended Monday's screening. "Although we're grateful to work with people who accurately portray the role of U.S. Army, we can't endorse every project to the level and desire of some of the groups we work with."
The network screened the film in mid-March for senior Army officials, including Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey, and received an enthusiastic response, said Richard Plepler, HBO's executive vice president. One retired general, whom Plepler did not identify, told him the film " 'captured the soul of the U.S. Army,' " the executive recalled. Said Plepler: "We were obviously very proud to have received that embrace, and we were looking forward to working with the Army in the coming months."
Thereafter, Plepler said, the Army's support began to evaporate. The network's offer to co-sponsor a screening of the film this week at Fort Campbell, Ky., the home of the 86th, was turned down by the Pentagon without explanation. The Army wasn't an official sponsor of Monday's screening, and none of the service's highest-ranking officers or senior medical personnel attended, despite HBO's invitation.
Several of the medical specialists featured in the documentary, including Col. Casper P. Jones III, the commander of the 86th CSH, attended this week's screening and were accorded a prolonged standing ovation at the film's conclusion.
The Army's Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, sent out a memo to Army medical personnel last week, alerting them to the film and asking them to remain vigilant about any adverse reactions to it.
Boyce downplayed the absence of the Army's top brass from the screening, saying: "The heroes of [the] documentary don't have stars on their shoulders. The stars are the wounded soldiers, doctors, nurses and chaplains who are there supporting those soldiers on the battlefront. This is not about a particular general." Nevertheless, he said, there were four colonels among the 40 or so soldiers at the screening.
Among the guests in attendance was Paula Zwillinger, whose son, Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Mininger, 21, died in Iraq from injuries from a roadside bomb. Zwillinger said in an interview that she didn't know exactly how her son died until the film's producers -- Joseph Feury, Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill -- contacted her as they were editing the film. Mininger's death is chronicled in a prolonged sequence at the end of "Baghdad ER."
She called the film a gift. "It gave me peace. At least I know he was with someone, and didn't die alone," she said.
Despite the grim subject matter, Zwillinger said: "I am positive about this film. It needs to be shown. I want the world to know this is reality. War is graphic, war is raw, war hurts. And we need more support for our troops, no matter what we think of the war."