*The War Tapes (NR)
Carmike Stadium 10
The War Tapes (TWT) is not the only gruesome film to emerge from Iraq in recent years: Gunner Palace, BattleGround: 21 Days on the Empire's Edge, Control Room and The Dreams of Sparrows are just a handful of rubble-strewn documentaries that predate this account of life behind 4-inch-thick Humvee glass. But where TWT strays from the pack, ultimately etching its own version of hell in our memories, is in the cinematographic aspect of the film being the first shot entirely by the soldiers themselves.
Winner of Best Documentary Feature at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, TWT is the result of a unique collaboration between producers Robert May (The Fog of War) and Steve James (Hoop Dreams), debut director Deborah Scranton and three New Hampshire National Guard members from Charlie Company of the 172nd Mountain Infantry Regiment.
Sgts. Steve Pink and Zack Bazzi and Spc. Mike Moriarty are the narrating cameramen who take us on patrol down Iraq's treacherous highways and into hostile neighborhoods. The soldiers head out daily from Camp Anaconda inside the Sunni Triangle, routinely taking small arms fire and often running into IEDs. All told, the unit endures over 1200 combat operations and nearly 250 direct enemy engagements before returning home.
At the film's beginning, we are thrown directly into the chaos of a particular gunfight: a U.S. soldier is down, guns are cracking endlessly and the camera leaves us wanting to duck behind the couch in the living room the unit's vulnerability is palpable. But after a fade, we are back to pre-deployment, meeting the soldiers' wives, mothers and girlfriends. They comprise a subplot as they struggle with their loved ones' absences and, after a warm homecoming, the changed men who return.
The film brings the audience along through miniDV cameras mounted to helmets, vests, gun turrets and dashboards, which show everything from scorched human remains to hectic firefights. A few stark images come in the form of voice-over journal excerpts. (Steve Pink: "Today was the first day I shook a man's hand that wasn't attached to his arm.")
The documentarians also take an unabashed look at the "TCN" (Third Country National) situation, in which KBR, a contracted defense subsidiary of Halliburton, employees foreigners such as Pakistanis or Turks to drive damaged and unarmored trucks. We see a gaunt man perched inside a mangled, windshield-less cab that appears to have taken a direct hit from an IED or RPG on the passenger side. The message, one documentarian insists: "Making money outweighs safety."
But the film hits hardest through the soldiers' subtle commentary about the low men dodging bullets and bombs to guard insignificant, yet crucial, items like waste disposal trucks or rations. Perhaps the most bitterly symbolic and grotesquely beautiful moment of the film comes when a soldier jokes about the rainbow that appears in the mist of the wastewater gushing from a "poop-truck."
TWT refrains from becoming overly preachy; no agenda is forced in it. What we get, instead, is simply an empathic appeal to see things through a soldier's eyes for a day or a year.