Docurama // 2012 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 23rd, 2012
"A rallying cry for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who have been assaulted."
Women in the United States armed forces are more likely to be raped by a fellow service member than die from enemy action. Pause for a moment and let that sink in. Our nation prides itself on the quality of its military, and the quality of our military rests on the quality of men and women who serve. Roughly 1 in 5 women in the military will be sexually assaulted before leaving. Perhaps more significantly, only 5 percent of perpetrators are actually prosecuted for rape and given jail time. Whether you bleed red, white, and blue or think the military is a bunch of violent puppets for corporate oil barons, these facts should be staggering. Filmmaker Kirby Dick, whose flick The Film is Not Yet Rated exposed the arbitrary nature of film rating, thought so, too. He investigated, and the result is The Invisible War, the kind of documentary that should wake all viewers up to the epidemic proportion of rape and sexual assault that not only occurs, but is covered up, by our men and women in uniform.
The Invisible War finds the main chunk of its narrative from a 2011 lawsuit brought by sixteen women against the military for their treatment after being raped by fellow servicemen. In each case, the women were violently assaulted by other service members, and in none of these cases were the perpetrators brought to justice. In a startling percentage of cases, the women themselves faced sanctions for "conduct unbecoming an officer" or "adultery" for reporting their rapes. Though this is the through-going narrative of the film, Kirby Dick spends most of his time with various women who were assaulted while serving. Though he interviews dozens of women, he focuses on a handful and we follow them through typical days post-military while learning about their struggles to get their situation recognized (especially by the VA medical office in the case of lasting physical damage caused by the assaults).
Obviously, The Invisible War isn't a popcorn flick or a feel-good narrative of redemption. Nope, it will leave you feeling depressed, but it's the facts more than the film that are depressing. What I'm most impressed with by the film is its sensitivity. When a guy like Kirby Dick goes to make a film about sexual assault in the military, there's the worry that it'll just be another guy intruding into the lives of traumatized men and women (and understand, women are far from the only victims of sexual assault in the film). Dick takes a hands-off approach, spending a lot of time watching and waiting rather than going in for the hard questions. When interviews with women do come up, it's a female voice asking the questions, which feels like a nice touch in a film about how insensitive the military command structure is towards victims of sexual assault. The film also eschews reenactments and other melodramatic touches.
Instead, the film is mostly conducted in the talking-head interview style. The main characters tell their stories on camera, and Dick interviews people involved in the judicial process as well. We see lawyers, psychologists, those in the military command structure, and even members of Congress interviewed. These interviews are interspersed with some fly-on-the-wall footage of the main characters living their lives, waiting to hear from the VA or trying to adjust to life outside the military.
One of the film's main virtues is the masterful way that it blends the microscopic and macroscopic levels of this problem. That means blending the stories of the main characters with the military hierarchy, but it also means that in addition to the women whose stories we get completely, there is a moment when Dick inserts a montage of dozens of women telling some of the details of their rape. It's a harrowing few moments in the film, but it keeps the fact that this is a systemic problem clearly in focus.
The DVD, much like the film, is focused on outreach. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and bright, doing a fine job of representing the shot-on-video look of the film. No serious compression artifacts or other problems crop up. The 5.1 surround track keeps the interviews audible and well-balanced, though the surrounds are wasted a bit in this context.
Extras start with a commentary by Dick and producer Amy Ziering that provides a lot of solid background info on the film and its context. We also get extended interviews and a deleted scenes (as if we needed more damning evidence for the military's failure to address this issue). There's also a post-screening Q&A included, as well as a featurette on a survivor retreat.
This is not a happy film. Much like some of Errol Morris' films (I'm thinking especially of Standard Operating Procedure), The Invisible War will change your opinion of the United States military. However, it's a film that frankly and harrowingly discusses rape and sexual assault. There is no dancing around or metaphorizing of the subject, so those who have experience with assault should exercise caution in viewing what could be a very difficult documentary.
The Invisible War is impeccable documentary filmmaking. Subtle, sophisticated, and focused on a topic of the highest importance, The Invisible War should be seen by anyone interested in the military, and it should be mandatory viewing for anyone thinking about signing up for a place in the military. Kirby Dick has shown with this film that he's able, chameleon-like, to hide his directorial stamp in favor of emotionally affecting material. This DVD is strong as well, and is certainly worth a rental, and is worth a purchase for fans of excellent documentary filmmaking.
Lots of people are guilty in this film, but The Invisible War is not.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes