JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Body of War (Directors/Writers: Phil Donahue, Ellen Shapiro) - January 5, 2008

Body of War

4 4
87 min.

Reviewed at the 2008 Palm Springs International Film Festival
77 to 23

As the U.S. presidential season heats up, it is not surprising that Democrats-with-cameras have planned to flood the big screen with seething indictments of the last eight years and hope their necessarily one-sided documentaries will find as much traction at the ballot box as the box office. Yesterday, we reviewed James Longley’s brief but telling piece taking its point of view from an Iraqi mother whose young son is losing his battle with HIV/AIDS (cross-reference below). Barely 24-hours later, another mother’s anguish made more political points than a politician could ever hope for as Ellen Shapiro’s knowing camera reported the trials and tribulations of Tomas Young.

After just five days in action, Young’s tour ended with an enemy bullet severing his spinal cord and rendering the intelligent, caught-up-in-the-immediate-aftermath of 9/11 (he began the enlistment process just 48-hours later) paralyzed from the chest down. However, like co-director Phil Donahue, the spunky veteran decided to weep no more and devote his considerable energy and caustic wit (e.g., making one of many public speeches, Young apologizes in advance for the many pauses and “ahs” that he knows from experience will slip unexpectedly into his remarks, “sounding like a politician”) to the cause of ridding the Whitehouse of a president who “stole” power from the venerated Constitution of the United States (Article 1, section 8 which declares that only Congress can declare war).

The film’s very personal chronicling of a single life so horrifically changed in the fraction of a second is intercut with the roll-call vote from the U.S. Senate for the legislation (already passed by Congress by a pathetically overwhelming 296-Aye/133-No majority), just three weeks before the mid-term election. That technique, even though the outcome is well-known, served as the dramatic glue and was further enhanced by the brilliant editing (Bernadine Colish) that lets President Bush and his Republican buddies-of-the-willing copy each other’s lies (often word for word) and scare the country into blind obedience as the Iraq War was launched for a never proved—much less discovered— cache of WMD (weapons of mass destruction). A cut-away shot to a “How many lives per gallon?” placard succinctly sums up the reality of policy-fueled-by-industry in a deft manner that long-winded speeches never can.

And so we follow Young as he overcomes the initial post-rehab blues and inertia, marries Brie—his pre-injury girlfriend—and courageously shows the world what life-in-a-chair can be like. No subject is taboo: from erectile dysfunction, to the on-camera insertion of a catheter into his penis by his mother (who still managed to quip “I’ve had your pee on my hand before this.”); sending off his younger brother for his tour-of-duty overflows with emotion and a different kind of heroism as Young tries to conceal his inner fear for his adoring sibling (and an off-camera anonymous “Bye daddy” that, once again, sums up the entire situation so movingly; finally, the near-inevitable separation from Brie as her Herculean role of wife/caregiver/very-infrequent-lover proved too much to bear (similar to the world of Acquired Brain Injury where the post-injury divorce rate is over 80%).

On balance this documentary drives home an abundance of points but can’t seem to decide if its goal is a call-to-action (in the same fashion as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truthcross-reference below) or a call-to-arms for those whose disabilities threaten their very existence.

At the post-screening Q&A, Donahue took the stage with accustomed authority and ease, urging the clearly partisan throng to “vote for [candidates] who will reach out rather than lash out” when tackling foreign policy “or we’ll always be afraid,” as both Congress and the Senate were in 2002. Senator Robert Byrd (D. West Virginia), whose impassioned speech urging his colleagues to join him on the “no” side even quoted Hermann Goering’s assertion that “… it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” in his wide-ranging address.

But then, as now, the struggle for freedom (or imposing it on others) takes top billing in the theatre of humanity, but it’s the producers’ deep pockets that determine the outcome. JWR

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Directors/Writers - Phil Donahue, Ellen Shapiro
Cinematography - Ellen Shapiro
Original Music - Jeff Layton
Sound Editor - Kevin McKinney
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