The Movie Binge

Review: The War Tapes

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“I love being a soldier. The only bad thing about the Army is, you can’t pick your war.”

As the closing words of The War Tapes, this proclamation is bitterly ironic – wasn’t the phrase “war of choice” being bandied about quite a bit just a year or so ago? This sideswipe is about as close as the film comes to assailing the very notion of a war in Iraq; more often than not, the soldiers involved rely on the frustratingly stock non-answer (to the big unasked question) that “Now that we’re here, we’ve got to do the job.” But what, exactly, is “doing the job”? Is it the futile mission of protecting trucks full of Cheese-Whiz from car bombs you could never stop in the first place? Is it running down civilians with a Hum-Vee when they don’t have the common sense to step out of the way? Is it standing around in the desert using night-vision goggles to watch buildings vanish in whiffs of bomb-dust? These are the primary pastimes of the soldiers we follow throughout the film, and it’s the sheer banality of their jobs – punctuated by short, sharp shocks of nearly inconceivable horror, and almost never relieved by anything approaching the positive side of human nature – that is the most prominent feature of the film.

The format of the documentary is fairly straight-forward: three Army National Guard soldiers from New England are given cameras with which to record the year they spend in Iraq. The three soldiers have, of course, three significantly varying (and, perhaps, carefully chosen, though as with any documentary film, there’s a certain amount of reality-manipulation that the viewer simply has to anticipate and discount) personalities that shape the narrative we get from each one: Stephen Pink is a smart-mouthed cynic whose sarcasm barely conceals what’s operating beneath the surface; Mike Moriarty is a blue-collar jingoist; and Zack Bazzi is a Lebanese-born immigrant who is one of the very few American soldiers in Iraq to speak Arabic fluently. The film lives or dies by the lens (no pun intended) that each one filters events through; as they are all a part of the same unit, their missions are largely similar – primarily, they guard convoys of food and supplies for Kellogg, Brown, and Root, the Halliburton subsidiary. While the film rarely indulges in political attack, all three narrators have special words of vitriol for the contractors who maintain a monopoly on every good the enlisted men require and consume; the soldiers cannot help but look upon as war profiteers, sneering at the absurdity of what has become, for them, the “War for Cheese.”

The film is sprinkled, as you might expect, with footage of stomach-churning carnage, but while certain scenes are undoubtedly visceral (especially the opening, which approximates the experience of being shot at with disturbing vividness), the documentary in no way relies on such images to make its impact – indeed, one scene is devoted to explaining why particularly horrific footage was left out, and the words alone are more than enough. It is, unsurprisingly, the three soldiers themselves who carry the film’s emotional weight. It’s their varying degrees of ability to come to terms with how profoundly terrible – and deeply unsatisfying -- their wartime experience was that is the most painful element of the film. All three, for varying reasons and with varying degrees of commitment, became soldiers for ideological reasons, whether it’s Mike Moriarty’s overt revenge-fantasy over 9/11 or Zack Bazzi’s intellectualized feelings of obligation – the feeling that, if you can do it, you must. But their experiences in Iraq were so demoralizing, and at times so degrading, that it is possible to watch their personalities fracture and scar as the film goes on – their defenses become paper-thin and their emotional wounds are plainly visible to everyone except themselves, as they transform into people that their families, and the audience, may find it very difficult to like, forcing an uncomfortable conflict with the notion that one must, at all costs, “support the troops.”

Many staunch opponents of the war – myself included – may be frustrated by the film’s lack of interest in pointing fingers, naming names, or summoning up any kind of righteous, well-phrased indignation. But if you wanted to make a case against how this war has been conducted, all the evidence you ever needed is right there on screen in The War Tapes, and while its decision to leave the making of that conclusion to the viewer may not be satisfying, it is admirable. At times, it’s an unspectacular documentary – one gets the feeling that three stronger films could have been made about each specific soldier, especially Zack Bazzi, whose ethnic background and intellectual odd-man-out personality alone are enough to hang an entire film on. But the overwhelming importance of the subject matter, and the film’s nonetheless solid composition, are more than enough to demand any viewer’s attention and respect.

(And as a completely unrelated side note… I feel it’s worth noting that digital projection technology gave me my first unique moviegoing experience when I saw this film at the Landmark Sunshine in Manhattan. About five minutes before the showing began, a small portion of the end of the film was accidentally projected in high-speed reverse, like rewinding a DVD – something one never would have seen with traditional projection. It’s small and perhaps meaningless, but it’s the first time I’d ever had to worry about being exposed to spoilers while waiting for a film to start…)