Phil Donahue and documentarian Ellen Spiro’s film Body of War about disabled veteran Tomas Young is a predictably liberal and anti-war take on the second Iraq War. I found it to be at times an emotionally powerful work, but I also sensed that I had some internal resistance to it that it only partially succeeded in overcoming.
I’ve seen a lot of documentaries lately, a large number of which have been on politically charged, life and death subjects. A decent number of those have been about war, and several have been about the second Iraq War in particular. Furthermore, I’ve been following the news for decades (much more closely in the past than recently), and have been outraged over and over and over and over and over by the duplicity, stupidity, and sometimes cruelty of people in power, especially when it comes to issues of war.
By now I have that “compassion fatigue” that people talk about. Or “outrage fatigue” or whatever. I know this stuff is horrible, I know I hate it; seeing more of it isn’t necessary to convince me. Nor is it likely to somehow spur me to action in a way that decades of exposure to material like it has not.
So in spite of the fact that I know this is really an important issue, to be honest my reaction when I sat down to watch another Iraq War documentary was a certain dread, an expectation that this would be one of those films I mostly have to force myself to watch.
Like I say, it partially but never fully overcame that. It’s at least a fairly well-made movie, parts of it interested me, parts of it touched me emotionally, and I’m confident the fact that it didn’t have even more of an impact is more due to my limited receptivity than to flaws in the film.
The film juxtaposes the postwar life and political activities of Young, with frequent cutaways to the Congressional debate and the Senate roll call vote on the resolution turning over authority to President Bush to attack Iraq at his discretion.
The latter is somewhat interesting. The frail Senator Robert Byrd’s impassioned pleas that the Senate not be stampeded into approving this resolution are especially attention-grabbing. (The filmmakers clearly intend for him to be perceived as a hero.) You also see the “talking points” phenomenon at work, that as the party leaders or the President specifically decides to say a certain thing a certain way on a certain day, other Republicans stay “on message” by hammering home that same point, often in the identical or nearly identical words.
But the roll call clips feel gimmicky and get a bit tedious, as the names of all seventy-seven Senators who voted for the resolution are read out a few at a time over the course of the movie. (Actually, one thing that does is provide a constant update of where one is in the film. They’re in alphabetical order, so around the Ls and Ms, I’m thinking “Oh, we must be about halfway through the movie.” By the time we’re to the Ts, it’s “OK, the movie’s just about over now.”)
It also has an “I told you so” feel to it. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Certainly people should be held accountable for their vote in a case like this, and people like Byrd deserve credit for saying no to this war that turned into such a debacle.
Really the movie doesn’t make much of a case that these seventy-seven Senators were wrong though. Unless it intends to imply that the fact that Young and people like him came home with dreadful injuries proves that the decision to go to war was the wrong one. But that would be an exceedingly lame argument, since people suffer horrible injuries and horrible deaths as a result of all wars including the most justified ones (and as a result of decisions not to go to war, for that matter).
Instead I think the movie assumes you already know the war was a blunder, and it’s just reminding you of some of the people to blame.
It also doesn’t get into the tricky issue of which people knowingly lied the country into war, and which people made decisions to vote for the war that were rationally justifiable based on the limited evidence available to them. But surely those groups are not equally culpable, do not equally deserve the “I told you so”s of this movie.
But it’s the other focus of the film, the story of Young, that better held my interest. I liked it because it has the “personal history” feel to it, which is the kind of filmmaking I seek to do.
Young is a sympathetic figure, but is by no means presented as flawless. He’s understandably upset about his lot—he’s in a wheelchair for life after being shot five days into his time in Iraq—and he at times lashes out at people around him, or just is a drag in general.
His wife comes across as a clearly positive figure. She married him after his injuries, which makes it all the more admirable. It’s not like she was somehow “stuck” due to having already taken a vow.
His mother comes across very well also.
I mean, the pain and frustration and desire to somehow fight back is palpable in all these people. As are the bonds they share. No matter how your life is fucked up in other ways, you have to appreciate having family you can count on like this.
I have to respect the film for not shying away from sensitive areas. We learn more than I’m sure some viewers would want to know about Young’s erectile dysfunction, his bowel control issues, his urinary tract infections, etc. But that’s reality. As he says, people note the not being able to walk part, but rarely think about the myriad of other things that are a part of being severely injured as he has been.
His wife notes in a tone of resignation that she can count the times they’ve had marital sex on the fingers of one hand. There’s some heart rending stuff here for sure.
And it ultimately takes its toll on the marriage. By movie’s end, they have separated, at his insistence. He knows how difficult he is to live with in his present state, and he knows that all the negativity he carries inside him causes him to treat her inconsiderately, which causes them to constantly bicker, and so he tells her he wants them to part before they hate each other.
One thing I’ll note about the film that’s a little disappointing is it appears the filmmakers were not able to make Young and the other people interviewed in the film comfortable enough to be natural on camera. Sometimes they speak from the heart and are fine, but there are plenty of clips where one or more of the people behave self-consciously, very much like people who are aware they’re being filmed.
One of the times that’s most apparent is when Young’s mother and father talk politics. (The mother is in the film a lot; the father barely at all.) The mother is liberal and anti-war and all for her son denouncing the politicians who put him in a wheelchair with their ill-advised war. The father is described as being a far right, proud “ditto head” follower of Limbaugh and Hannity and their ilk, supporter of President Bush, etc. A couple times in the movie the parents have a political disagreement on camera, but it just doesn’t feel real. It’s like they’re putting on a show, uttering clichés at each other that they’ve picked up from TV. There’s no intensity to it, no hostility, no painful emotions over how this relates to their son. You can almost hear the filmmaker telling them, “OK, now say the kind of things that you say to each other when politics comes up,” and that’s just not where they are emotionally, and so they need to pretend.
The anti-war folk music that recurs throughout the movie seems somehow more trite than fitting and profound.
The ending is moderately effective. The filmmakers bring the two main threads of the film—the film’s two heroes—together by having Young and Senator Byrd meet in Byrd’s Senate office, where they praise each other and express much respect for each other. There’s a nice closing shot of the two of them walking down a hallway, Young in his wheelchair, the elderly Byrd slowly tottering along with a cane.
“I guess we both have mobility issues,” Young says with a smile.
Neither of them is close to a perfect person, but I have to agree with Body of War’s message that if America had more folks like these two individuals, we’d be in a lot better shape.