If nothing else, 2007 will go down as the Year of the Iraq War Films. Back in September, when I reviewed Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq, I ran down the litany of the recent Iraq-war films, from Fahrenheit 9/11 to Body of War. Anyone who's been to film fests this year has probably had about all the war they can stomach for a while; it just gets depressing after a while. War is probably as old as mankind, and the evolution of modern weaponry hasn't made it any prettier when average people die in battles in which they are pieces in a chess game being played out by people who will likely never face death in the way the troops they send to fight their battles do.
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience is one of the efforts this year to capture the experience of the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts started "Operation Homecoming," a project that brought some of America's most distinguished writers to the troops and their families, to create a compilation of stories and poems about the war, to be printed in an anthology. Pulling from this collection of thousands of writings-- ranging from poems to letters to parody of life in the desert -- the doc captures some of those stories, read by folks like Robert Duvall, Josh Lucas, and Aaron Eckhart. The writings -- some polished, some less so -- are wrenching reminders of the real cost of war, brought your way by the folks who are over there sweating in the desert and risking their lives on a daily basis.
At times, Operation Homecoming seems uncertain of just what kind of film it wants to be; interview segments are reminiscent of the talking heads you see on Biography or The History Channel (it's probably not coincidental that many of the folks on the film's productuion team have backgrounds making docs for the likes of PBS and The History Channel) while, other segments are more stylized. One of the best segments, a stark comic-style animation that accompanies Colby Buzzell's piece, "Men in Black," actually adds to the experience of the reading. Actually, an entire documentary about Buzzell, who wrote a popular anonymous blog from the frontlines before his commanding officers found out about it, would have been interesting.
Robbins largely tries to steer clear of making judgments about the war itself; while you could argue that he's trying to present the soldiers' point-of-view without mixing it with politics, this war is undeniably political, and we know that at least some of these soldiers have to have perspectives that reflect that. Where are the soldiers writing things like, "And as I was in my tank with artillery shells hitting all around me, I wondered just what the hell we were doing, being put into this situation to begin with?" Minimizing this perspective weakens the film overall, making it feel more like military propaganda and less like a penetrating examination of war. It feels like Robbins is trying to get a message across by including veterans from other wars talking about their war experiences, but he skirts a little wide around the bigger political issues.
What makes No End in Sight such a powerful film (and one that plays well on the big screen) is its unwavering point of view from people who have been over there in the trenches: that the war in Iraq is a murky pool of quicksand into which we've planted both feet, and now any move we take to get out of it only mires us deeper. Operation Homecoming's message, on the other hand, seems to be simply that war is bad and that it kills people -- we know that already. For a war film to be really compelling, especially against the pack of other films about this particular war that have been inundating fest audiences all year, the voices of these soldiers need to be presented in a way that brings their stories more to life.
With some of the segments it's unclear whether the accompanying footage is actual video that's relevant to that particular soldier's story, or if these are all re-enactments of their stories, or just random war footage edited in because we need a shot of soliders in a tent here, or soliders in tanks there. The other thing I kept wondering while watching the film was: Why not have the actual soldiers reading their own work, rather than bringing in the Big Names? This is supposed to be about giving the "little guy, the guy on the bottom of the food chain" a voice, so let them speak for themselves. Nanking (also on the Oscar short list) used a similar technique of actors reading letters and diary entries (in that case, recorded with all the actors reading in a roundtable setting), but it worked because, in most cases, the people whose stories were being read are dead now, so they couldn't read their own stuff, and the historical footage that accompanied each piece was clearly tied to what was being read.
Overall, Operation Homecoming is a solid PBS doc, capturing a sliver of history with these soldiers' stories, but is less effective as a theatrical doc offering any new insights into the Iraq War (the film played on PBS's "America at the Crossroads" back in April and had a limited theatrical run to qualify it for an Oscar run). The nature of Operation Homecoming -- this capturing over personal war histories -- lends itself more to the intimacy of the television much more than the big screen -- there's just not enough there that's groundbreaking or compelling for it to stand out against other war films like last year's Iraq in Fragments or this year's No End in Sight, two docs that examined Iraq with a more critical eye. Nonetheless, as an effort at capturing the humanity of war, Operation Homecoming is worth watching to hear these soldiers voices, and to be reminded that the war is still going on and our troops are still over there, risking their lives every day.
For more on Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which is on the documentary shortlist for the Oscars, you can read the stories brought to life in the film on the film's official website.