Judge Katie Herrell is organizing an anti-unnecessary-documentary protest.
The True Story of an Anti-War Hero.
The film Body of War isn't heroic. It isn't patriotic. It is anti-war, but what does that accomplish? This movie isn't subtle and it isn't persuasive. It is sad, but what does that accomplish? It isn't terribly well shot or well edited, but it is a true story. But what does that accomplish? As Body of War works to hit the viewer over the head with the evilness of war its only success is to spread its protagonist's bitterness and leave the lingering question of "What's the point?"
Facts of the Case
25-year-old Tomas Young spent five days at war before he was shot and paralyzed from the chest down. This film follows Tomas as he adjusts to a post-war, wheelchair-bound life that involves sending his own brother into harm's way while he travels the lecture circuit denouncing the war. Young's poor wife and mother are the supporting characters.
This movie is made of two halves, although it's a story of infinite pieces. Juxtaposed with the footage of Young's travails as a young, paralyzed war veteran is the portrayal of the government that ostensibly caused his predicament. Strung between the two is the underutilized, original songs of Eddie Vedder. (Where in Into the Wild Vedder's songs were carefully haunting and really brought the picture some depth, here they are routinely played as low-level background noise.)
The story of Tomas Young is dimly-lit and seemingly shot with a hand-held camera. The perspective is mainly from Tomas's wheelchair, and whether intentionally or not, this mid-level view is carried throughout the film. Many interviews with able-bodied people are shot sitting down and the center of every scene seems to be on the middle of the body rather than on the face or the whole person. This lower perspective coupled with a dark setting and tight shots that don't include any outside scenery create a gloomy attitude, one that is further fueled by the depressing subject matter. There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, just a catheter and rubber gloves.
While that last sentence might seem a bit harsh, the amount of camera time devoted to Tomas's penis and his difficulties with it are played out again and again. Tomas's difficulties maintaining an erection or fully relieving himself are enough to elicit sympathy from anyone and are certainly worthy of mention, especially in a film attempting to portray the harsh realities of a body broken by war, but the multiple scenes devoted to his penis and others' interaction with it are simply overdone.
Tomas is a snarky, at times well-spoken young man, and his quick wit is often overshadowed in the film by his depression and unhappiness which result in angry words brandished towards his loved ones. While Tomas tours the lecture circuit charming his audiences with humorous jabs at himself and the administration, all the while deploring the war while also being lauded as a hero, it is his wife and mother who stand in the shadows preparing for the next bad mood, or simply the next physical move. Tomas's new wife and his mother bear the brunt of his bad attitude and must cater to his many physical woes, but they never get the "hero's welcome" that Tomas receives from his lecture audiences. Not that Tomas's position is an enviable one—far from it—but the burden Tomas's wife and mother bear is not given enough credit in this film.
And it is a great burden, especially considering Tomas's mother is about to watch her second son go off to war. This should have been the great conflict in the film: the war weary older-brother watching his over-energetic younger brother trudge off to potentially the same fate (if not the story of the young bride and her broken husband). And while this storyline is carried throughout the film, it is carried out in rather lackluster fashion. The mother is quite clearly distraught about her younger son's future, but scenes of her passionate anti-war speeches are juxtaposed alongside her lounging husband (the boys' stepfather) who is far right and smirky all the time. Tomas says he's worried about his brother, but we never see a heart-to-heart, don't-do-this plea. And the brother flippantly thinks the same fate could never befall him; that his team is much more prepared. Then we're returned to Tomas naming off the pills in his medicine box or researching the internet for clues to an erection. In centering this film around one maimed body, the larger scope of the war and its casualties is overlooked.
And the narrow focus doesn't seem to do Tomas any good either. Instead of growing towards the attention, Tomas seems to become further self involved and beaten down to the point where he dismisses his wife. The happiest shot of her is when she is sitting on the bed of her new one-room studio apartment. The physical lightness in her bedroom is startling given the film's overall darkness.
The other source of light in the film is the footage of the White House Correspondents' Association dinner. Here we see a spoof of President Bush looking for the weapons of mass destruction and the big names in journalism parading into their version of the Oscars. The sequins and the dazzle are meant to showcase the distance the administration and followers have from the realities of war, and it is an effective comparison. But that comparison is nullified by real shots of the Senate arguing for or against the war, and the monotone voice over a gray and white screen of who voted for or against the war. The use of spliced up footage of congressional hearings is becoming commonplace in many documentaries, and when both sides of an argument routinely use pieces of the same event to showcase their point it becomes unimpressive. Much like this film as a whole.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I need to see Tomas five years from when this film was shot. Certainly, the first year or so after a severely debilitating injury and harrowing experience is not going to be someone's shining moment. I want to see Tomas today, see what he's done with his wits and his smarts. And if he's done anything, if he's been able to overcome some of his physical ailments, that's the anti-war movie I want to see, to hear. I want to see progress, if not in the country, then in one person. Then this film will have been worth something.
Body of War does roll out multiple DVD extras, which include an Eddie Vedder music video, interviews with the film' creators Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro (also the cinematographer), and a Take Action screen that includes websites to find out more about "fighting" the war, plus the DVD standard of deleted scenes.
Certainly these stories need to be told, but they need a well-rounded perspective, not a gratuitous look at one man's broken body.
Tomas is irked at the word hero and at his receipt of a Purple Heart. He'd probably find this movie's tag line faulty too, as do I.
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Scales of Justice
• Eddie Vedder music video "No More"
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