The War Comes Home

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Two years ago, a young writer named Chris Bachelder published "U.S.!," a novel that centered on a gothic and arresting image: In some dystopian version of our own crazy world, the body of the great muckraking novelist Upton Sinclair is repeatedly unearthed and resurrected, only to be assassinated (again and again) by people who are decidedly not fans of his left-wing expos┬┐s and accusatory style. Take it as a metaphor for the anxiety that must haunt many of our best documentarians. Their films keep coming. The world remains the same. Perhaps no one cares. The box office returns -- generally infinitesimal by popular or commercial standards -- seem to prove it.

Documentary makers, including those passionately animated by the war in Iraq, will not necessarily admit to such a dark view of their profession. As the war falls off the front pages and the national attention turns to domestic politics and economic pain, the documentary world is still tenaciously parsing a war that is in a strange cultural holding pattern: absent but present, still playing out somewhere, but mostly unseen in the foreground of the media's fickle obsessions. Yet in two new, high-profile films -- one about torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison, and the other about the excruciating life of a wounded soldier -- you sense a meta-level awareness of what it's like to make films in the shadow of the Great Disconnect.

Perhaps you can feel it in the strange way that the war is beginning to feel increasingly like a distant, historical event in two very different films. In Ellen Spiro's "Body of War" (co-produced and co-directed by Phil Donahue), video of the October 2002 congressional debate on the Iraq war resolution has that familiar-but-foreign quality of things now slipping into the near past. Politicians hector each other, with faces less wrinkled, hair less gray than they have today. Names that were once so familiar you felt like they were family (what happened to Phil Gramm?) are slipping into the realms of amnesia. The urgency of the threat of weapons of mass destruction -- announced by the president and parroted by the Congress -- feels odd, too, not just because no WMDs were found but because the very foundations of the war have shifted so many times over the past half-decade. The video footage in Spiro's film, which opens Friday, feels like the war's baby pictures.

In "Standard Operating Procedure," a new look at Abu Ghraib from the legendary documentarian Errol Morris ("Fog of War"), we have our first serious meeting -- face to face, in sustained interviews -- with the young villains of the torture scandal. Lynndie England, whom we met before the invention of YouTube, when Saddam Hussein was still alive and Donald Rumsfeld was running the war, finally speaks. The pixie with a naked man on her leash sounds bitter, and her face is older and plumper than in the famous photographs that damned her to prison. Now she wants to set the record straight. And, rather like the rare times you hear a recording of the queen of England, you have the uncanny sense that you can't remember if you've ever heard her voice before.

Both films deal with the question of accountability. Both are squarely aimed at a general audience, which the filmmakers hope will not be a partisan one. Donahue says he determined his film would be short, to the point and not preachy. "My gold standard was 85 minutes because that is how long the 'March of the Penguins' is." The film, a powerful mix of cinema verite and political confrontation, came in at 87 minutes.

Morris's film, which opens next month, is more intellectual, more a matter of argument, a rumination on what pictures mean and how they function. But the score is by Danny Elfman, tunesmith to the "Batman" franchise and composer of the theme of "The Simpsons." And the glitzy graphics are first-rate.

But it's also not too daring to predict this: Neither film will, in any directly measurable way, satisfy the craving for greater accountability that many in their largely antiwar audience so passionately desire. And this basic fact will become part of the way the films are assessed. It is a phenomenon that needs defining: The Iraq war is being processed almost out of sight, in a cinematic unconscious that may not influence mainstream thinking about the war for years.

In different ways, both of these films seem aware of the dilemma. "Body of War" attempts to cut through the silence with emotion. It is a brutally direct film, simply structured, juxtaposing an unflinching look at the paralyzed body of Tomas Young with the war resolution debate that ultimately led to his trauma. As members of Congress, including Sens. John McCain and Hillary Clinton, are heard parroting the talking points of the administration, a roll call of the Senate vote is edited into the narrative. Young, who was shot in the early days of the war, talks about catheters, Viagra and depression. We see his dizziness and cold sweats, his medicine and his failing marriage, while a voice-over intones his doom: "Mr. Kyl: aye, Ms. Landrieu: aye, Mr. Lieberman: aye . . ."

"Body of War" fights to be heard by turning up the volume. It uses the primal democratic reward-and-punish system to the point of tendentiousness -- a vote for Hillary is a vote to paralyze young men such as Tomas Young -- to ask the stock question of so many documentaries: Where's the outrage?

But it also uses a rhetorical technique that has proved so astonishingly unproductive in our current political discourse that one can only wonder at its continued survival. This is split-screen argument: Here's how they voted, here's what that vote meant. It is not all that different from the thousands of hours of "Meet the Press" moments -- you said "x" four years ago, now you say "y" -- that never, ever add up to a meaningful acknowledgment of anything. It is an argument for accountability (and a heartbreaking one if you are already opposed to the war) that comes from within the same political and rhetorical world that has so effectively banished real accountability.

Morris's "Standard Operating Procedure" takes a very different approach, fleshing out in minute detail a story that most viewers who haven't followed the Abu Ghraib scandal will know only in bits and pieces. Using images from three cameras that all were clicking inside the prison when the abuse occurred, Morris meticulously reconstructs the where, when and how behind the images of torture and abuse that shocked the world when they emerged in 2004.

For Jumana Musa, advocacy director at Amnesty International USA, Morris's film is important for filling in motivation and context behind the still photographs.

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