Much in the same vein but with decidedly different results as The Hurt Locker (cross-reference below), Heather Courtney has followed the lives, loves and losses of three U.S. soldiers whose deadly business is to make Afghanistan’s roadways safe for travel. There’s more than enough IEDs and land mines to keep legions of troops perpetually deployed, detected and frequently destroyed (either literally or facing the grim reality of the effects of Acquired Brain Injury due to successive full-body concussions) in the “unfixable graveyard of the world.”
The three subjects, Dom, Cole and Bodi are best buds from UP (Upper Peninsula), Michigan. As the film opens in their snowy habitat, we learn that they feel “stuck” in their late teens so succumb to the siren call of free education and cash so effectively sung by National Guard recruiters. Four years later, having been dutifully trained in the manly art of killing terrorists (paid or ideological) and defending the war-torn majority that populate the poppy-rich state, surviving (physically, at least) a nine-month tour of daily fear around every corner, all of them—most emphatically in Bodi’s case, now a self-described racist American—are more “stuck” than ever before. Cole readily admits that he “has no idea what I’ll do.” Dom, whose ever-patient girlfriend Ashley endures the frequent snapping, mood swings, irritability and restlessness of her man with long-term unease, finds some respite through rekindling his artistic muse, creating a huge urban-art mural that puts a creative face to his inner angst of becoming forever “changed” by his experience.
Courtney has crafted a visual tour de force as she links the idyllic small-town existence of the all-for-one warriors with the arid, untameable terrain of ugly conflict. Innocent, home-movie cannonball splashes of boys bathing cutting directly to a real-life blast of destruction sets the tone early on. Snow-covered caps soon replaced by barren peaks depict the journey from lands of plenty to fields of despair with subliminal, silent punch. Adventurously speeding toboggans can be imagined as the antithesis of exported powder of a different stripe destined for glass surfaces, credit cards and nasal runways. The desert sand, with its treacherous bounty of explosives most foul, stands in stark contrast to the purely recreational dunes that are lapped upon by endless waves from one of the world’s largest bodies of water.
Emotionally and psychologically, the filmmaker spends much of her time chronicling the reaction of the lads’ family and friends: hearing/seeing both ends of several Skype conversations adds much to the feelings of intimacy, caution and love that permeate the chats. Life in the barracks and on patrol also reveals the high-strung tension that is somewhat successfully masked by hijinks and bad jokes—but every time a blast is heard, felt or responsible for an unexpectedly black screen, the mind inevitably wonders who has breathed their last.
Doubtless, some of the curious Afghan kids, whose wide-eyed innocence gives the film a few frames of hope, are now old enough to find a remedy to their poverty and despair planting the next wave of pressure-triggered munitions or reaching an early state of heavenly bliss piloting suicide missions.
Surely, victory can only be a few decisive battles away, if only Dom’s telling question “Why does it really happen?” could ever be satisfactorily answered. JWR