The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez is a documentary about the first U.S. soldier killed in the second Iraq war.
Gutierrez was an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. Evidently there was some program—some precursor to the “Dream Act”—that allowed such immigrants to change their legal status if they served a term in the military, and he was a part of that.
The movie traces his story from his childhood in Guatemala living on the streets and in orphanages, to his journey through Mexico and into the U.S., to his entering the military, to his death. It uses interviews with the person who runs an orphanage in Guatemala where he lived, his sister, people who knew him in the military, and various others.
I would say the movie tries to do multiple things, and it does all of them reasonably well but not great.
Partly it’s a biographical, mostly laudatory, account of this individual. But it also tries to make various political points, and not just the obvious ones that a story like this would automatically make if it were on CNN or something in the mainstream media like that (e.g., that all U.S. soldiers—but especially any that die—are brave and heroic and altogether perfect in every way, that foreigners who come here—at least the good ones—are so grateful for the opportunity that they’re eager to repay their benefactor society by joining the military, etc.). Instead they are more leftist points about how U.S. policies in countries like Guatemala create or add to the mess that people who come here are fleeing from, about how undeservedly miserable a life illegal aliens have in this country, about how illegal immigrants are forced into devastating choices like becoming mercenaries and being sent overseas to fight in dubious wars, and so on.
It’s trying to do so much that it really can’t go into ideal depth on any of these things. So it thought-provokingly raises issues about U.S. foreign policy and immigration policy and such, but there’s no time to present a detailed case about any of them.
On the biographical side, I felt like the movie enabled me to get to know and feel for Gutierrez somewhat, but I think it was hampered by a lack of material. There are many tidbits of information from interviews with people who knew him, but it doesn’t feel like a complete picture.
And there are almost no relevant visuals. One consequence of that is that since—like seemingly all documentaries—the movie wants to avoid at all costs showing mostly talking heads, there’s a lot of “generic” footage. So, for instance, since there’s obviously no video of him traveling from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border and then sneaking into this country, they show current would-be illegal immigrants making that trek.
That’s a little confusing at times—are we looking at him while they’re talking about him, or is it more like a “dramatization” showing other people doing what he likely would have been doing? But I suppose it makes it a little easier for the movie to transition to making more general points about these issues, since it isn’t all about this one guy.
One thing that stood out to me is that—likely contrary to the intentions of the filmmaker—there’s some material here that the anti-immigrant right could get fired up about. It’s interesting how much support he received in this country, and not just from sympathetic people and groups willing to break the law or operate in gray areas of the law, but even from governmental and more “official” sources.
Once he made it into the country, he could not be deported because he was a minor. He was put through school. (And apparently schools with the kind of bilingual education that doesn’t just try to assist in easing a person into English from their native language, but that teaches them all or mostly in their native language so they don’t have to learn English. I say that, because one of the interviewees says as a point of pride as a Guatemalan Gutierrez refused to learn English. On the other hand, that’s contradicted by people who knew him in the military around that same time or just after who say he spoke imperfect but fairly good English.) He was matched up with and lived with various foster families. He benefitted from programs set up specifically to assist illegal aliens. Even the military program that rewards illegals for their service could be objected to by some as inappropriately beneficial.
It’s not like he got endless handouts or anything, but there’s plenty there that would infuriate a lot of people. I have a friend who would be considered liberal on most issues, but illegal immigration is a real hot button issue for her (in that she’s vehemently opposed), and I can only imagine what she would think watching this.
Just to jump to another point, I’d say the emotionally most powerful segment of the movie is near the end when a fellow Marine is interviewed and he tells of interacting with Gutierrez in a field hospital or somewhere while he lay dying and there was clearly no hope he’d survive. He’s a Latino as well, and a Guatemalan specifically as I recall. He chokes up as he gives a very articulate, very moving account of his experiences on that occasion.
As for The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez as a whole, its heart’s in the right place, there’s a lot more in it I agree with than I disagree with, and it’s at least reasonably well made. But I don’t know that it hit me as hard as it could have. It got me to care about Gutierrez to a certain extent, and to think about some of the issues it raised to a certain extent, but it didn’t blow me away, or strike me as one of the movies I’ve written about so far that I’ll remember the longest.