The War Tapes
2006Director: Deborah Scranton
Cast: Steve Pink, Mike Moriarity, Zack Bazzi
ove it or hate it, the most indispensable moments in Michael Moore’s contentious Fahrenheit 9/11 came from the raw footage from Iraq. These clips marked a significant departure from the heavily controlled images that served his political agenda and showed us another side to the actual fighting which up until then was only dispensed in censured media footage. Given the immediacy of these images, it was only a matter of time before other directors harnessed them further to create a more penetrating documentary on the war—one free from the talking heads of the domestic debate that instead pierced straight to the core of the conflict.
Two years ago we had Gunner Palace, which opened to favorable reviews; now we have The War Tapes, produced by Hoop Dreams director Steve James and directed by Deborah Scranton. In 2004, Scranton was granted the opportunity to film alongside the New Hampshire National Guard where she would have likely constructed a compelling, if typical, documentary on the soldiers’ struggle in Iraq, but perhaps sensing that such a film would not offer sufficient insight into the reality of the war, she chose instead to hand over digital cameras to several guardsmen to take into combat and document their own experiences independently.
Given the manner by which this film came together, its effectiveness rests delicately upon the personas of its subjects. While Scranton ultimately decides what we see and what we don’t, she nevertheless cannot construct an opinion that doesn’t already exist. Luckily, the guardsmen approach their task with brutal honesty. Sometimes, the overt racism and ignorance of their opinions makes you cringe; other times they demonstrate a devastatingly poignant sincerity.
Sgt. Steve Pink comes off as the most animated and unpredictable—revealing little empathy around fellow soldiers, yet lyrical and poetic in his detailed journal entries, painfully racist at some moments, but strangely introspective at others. Mike Moriarity fills the position of American family man—the kind of person who signed up for the army immediately following September 11th, and approaches the strife with an unquestioning demeanor. Finally, Zack Bazzi assumes the role of the vigilant, skeptical outsider. Having immigrated to America from Lebanon when he was a child, Bazzi speaks Arabic, makes frequent attempts to connect with the civilians, and laments the ignorance of his contemporaries in their treatment of the Iraqi people.
Documentaries such as this often come under fire for possessing a liberal bias on the war. But when those opinions come from those most directly involved in the battle, it’s hard to refute the evidence they display or inject it with an outsider’s political leanings. The fact that certain critics have dismissed the film as propaganda feels a bit misguided since each soldier, at one point or another, offers a critique of the conflict. In particular, Steve Pink’s tirade against the role of Halliburton subsidiary KBR in the war comes off as fiery as well as revelatory.
Strangely, the actual conflict between soldiers almost takes a backseat to the internal conflicts of the individuals. They battle with their own beliefs and consistently witness their views challenged by the carnage they confront. Moriarity appears to feel no remorse, viewing his time in the region as necessary payback, until he witnesses an innocent woman run down in the street by a KBR truck. Upon his return to America, he divulges that the image of her organs strewn about the pavement will stick with him for the rest of his life.
Steve Pink likewise juggles his feelings of mistrust and hatred throughout the film. One moment, he’s observing a lonely child playing in the middle of the war zone and feeling something akin to sympathy. Then he confounds our own sympathies in the most appallingly difficult scene in the entire film, in which he videotapes the mangled and disemboweled corpses of the insurgents and (though we thankfully never view the footage) watches as a wild dog devours one of the bodies. The commentary he provides, in fact, was so vicious and politically incorrect that he states later that the army refused its release.
By contrast, Bazzi comes off as the most levelheaded. Forever vigilant of the government’s intentions in the region, but nevertheless sworn to duty as a soldier, he’s tragically conscripted to fight for a cause he doesn’t believe in. He laments, “The only bad thing about being in the army is that you can’t pick your war.”
The film is a difficult and often frustrating viewing. It is neither for nor against the war, but steps back calmly to observe those thrown violently into it. A few flaws do result from this structure, most notably the lack of emotional trajectory (a result of the sub par pacing). But while such problems obscure the film’s brilliance on purely cinematic terms, they never diminish its significance as an illuminating portrait of the lesser-seen side of the conflict.
The War Tapes is now playing in limited release.