Not surprisingly, mainstream Hollywood hasn't dared touch the subject of the war in Iraq. Instead, the real story is being told on the big screen through a handful of stunningly visceral, brutally honest documentaries (Control Room, Gunner Palace, Uncovered: The War on Iraq). Now comes The War Tapes, from filmmaker Deborah Scranton, who gained access to a New Hampshire Army National Guard unit during a 2004 deployment to Iraq, and distributed mini DV cameras and helmet mounts to the soldiers. The result is a harrowing and intensely intimate view of combat that won the best documentary prize at this year's Tribeca film festival.
Scranton places the viewer in the front seat of Humvees during frantic patrols of crowded streets loaded with the constant threat of improvised explosives. The film smartly narrows focus to three individual soldiers with differing personalities, motivations and outlooks on life and the war.
Specialist Mike Moriarty is a gung ho 34-year-old family man with major anger issues and deep ambivalence about his duties. Sergeant Steve Pink is an acerbic aspiring writer with a thick Boston accent who uses humor to suppress the frustration building inside him. And Lebanese-American Zack Bazzi is optimistic but politically cynical; his ethnicity and ability to speak Arabic sets him apart from his colleagues but makes him indispensable to the platoon.
Bazzi finds the burden of translating becomes too much when he's forced to tell an Iraqi man he can't take his child to the hospital because it's on the wrong side of a road that Bazzi's unit has been ordered to protect.
The men are all vocal in their disgust of what they call "the war for cheese," namely the financial interests that are gaining gold from human misery, especially Halliburton and its subsidiaries, which supply a host of goods and services to the military at a steep markup.
Several soldiers don't shy away from expressing their hatred of the local population, tossing around derogatory terms as part of the inevitable dehumanization of the enemy. Of course it's never entirely clear just who that enemy is, which leads to Moriarity's "nuke 'em all" fatalism, and Pink's wish to simply engage the foe from a distance close enough to see what he's shooting at.
The gruesome results of battle are on graphic display in The War Tapes, but so is the camaraderie of the troops. There are potent doses of wartime black humor, as in a debate about whether a severed limb looks more like raw hamburger or pot roast.
Ultimately this is a difficult film to watch, but the horrors on display are images that mainstream American audiences desperately need to see.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.