It took years of bad movies (The Green Berets) and vague-enough-for-prime-time allusional references (M*A*S*H) before the semi-metaphorical Deer Hunter gave way to trippy Apocalypse Now (and even then it had to feature one of the most testosterone-laden war scenes ever put on film) before we could confront stories like Platoon and start talking about Vietnam. So it is not surprising that the most recent Iraq War is still looking for its movie.
The Hurt Locker was both awful as a film (plot? beginning, middle and ending?) and had nothing to do with Iraq besides using it as a marketing tool, as well as being beyond even Hollywood standards of inaccurate. The British film Battle for Haditha is much better, but a bit too preachy at the end. Its Rashomon-like approach, telling the story of a roadside bomb attack and the massacre that followed from three perspectives (Marines, insurgents and local family) was cool, however. All the Gen X/Gen Kill TV shows focus too much on the first weeks of the war when everything was fireworks. Those first ten weeks belong almost in a different part of the store.
There is also a Turkish film called Kurtlar Vadisi (Valley of the Wolves: Iraq) which posits the US turned its mighty invasion force to attack Turkey. The plucky Turks win of course, but not before cameos by American crazy men Billy Zane and Gary Busey, the latter of whom plays an smuggler harvesting kidneys from the dead to resell in Israel.
Two Iraq War Movies You Need to See
The reality of our Iraq War is far away from helibourne assaults set to Ride of the Valkyries. Soldiers who sustained themselves over multiple tours talk about nine one-year wars, each distinct and horrible in its own way. The common denominator is that there isn't one: an early tour as a stay-on-base Fobbit might focus on being mortared while swimming in one of Saddam's palace pools, while a later war mission to conduct patrols without purpose is remembered in nightmares and flashbacks. Scary, horrifying, terror as much over what you saw as what you did, terror over what was done to you rather than what you did. A passive-aggressive war that wrecked minds as well as limbs.
Two Iraq War movies you need to see focus us on those minds with grace and subtlety as far beyond the crazed Vietnam Vet of Taxi Driver as the passing decades will allow.
Before he became famous for (allegedly) leaking the WikiLeaks Iraq War documents, Bradley Manning (allegedly) leaked unedited gun camera footage that showed Apache helicopter gunship crews almost gleefully killing innocent Iraqi civilians in July 2007. James Spione's Incident in New Baghdad, now on the shortlist for an Academy Award nomination this year as best documentary, tells the story of Army Specialist Ethan McCord's dramatic first-hand experiences on the scene. Specialist McCord was an infantryman sent to the site of the massacre, where he encountered two Iraqi children, horribly wounded but still alive. McCord killed no one, never even fired his weapon that day, but found himself forever changed by what he saw among the dead and dying. Anger, confusion and guilt combined; call it Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
The film tells his story by juxtaposing images from the ground with McCord back home in Kansas recounting his experiences and reflecting on them. Told sympathetically but without sympathy, the film forces the viewer into McCord's world, unblinkingly jumbling images of McCord holding a wounded Iraqi child as he thinks of his own son back home with sticky war porn shots of the street dead and GI Joe gun cam footage. McCord speaks of his anger and rage, how he threw a bowl of ice cream against the wall when his daughter asked for more chocolate, how he finally sought relief by speaking out after realizing his own family had become afraid of him. The story does not end when the film does; McCord still wrestles with a life. The images from the film are instead left around the viewer, as they are for McCord, like accumulated dirty snow.
Nick Brennan's A Marines Guide to Fishing is a second important Iraq War film to see. Fictional as opposed to Incident's documentary format, Brennan told me in an interview that "I do think this story is stronger and unique as a work of fiction because it provides for a certain level of separation and dramatization that you don't get in documentary work, as well as allowing me to incorporate the stories of dozens of vets I met with during research." The film stars Matthew Pennington, an Iraq vet himself in a first acting role. Pennington is a victim of PTSD, seeking understanding by re-experiencing as an actor his own trauma.
Derived from its main character's failed search for solace through fishing, A Marine's Guide tells the story of a young veteran's return to his old job in a New England dockyard on his first "Alive Day" -- the one year anniversary of the day he was almost killed overseas. Cool in its colors, Fishing focuses first on the vet's relationship with his children over an ironic image of toy soldiers, before moving on to its subject's first attempts to reintegrate into the workplace. With a Vietnam veteran as his boss, it seems like an easy transition until a young co-worker, standing in for ignorant Americans everywhere, starts asking questions about kill counts and seeking war stories "just like in the video games." Struck by a flashback to the day he lost his leg in an IED attack, the film ends with Pennington (himself forever tied to a prosthetic leg after a real roadside bombing in Iraq) on a pier at sunset, his prosthetic by his side, decompressing. His sympathetic boss tells him to take all the time he needs to bounce back, but ends the film with the warning "You stay out here too long, you'll never get back."
Bringing It Home
The Iraq War was unlike Vietnam in ways no doubt PhD candidates are even presently dissertating on, as Vietnam was from the earlier Good War. Yet despite each conflict's story, we understand now the constant is the men (and women) coming home. In that sense, perhaps the film most analogous to Incident in New Baghdad and A Marine's Guide to Fishing is not Apocalypse Now or Taxi Driver or Platoon but WWII's The Best Years of Our Lives.
That movie asked a weary nation, layered in deep-rooted ambivalence toward its veterans' real emotional demands, the question our modern filmmakers now put to their viewers: you sent them over there, America, to do what you said needed to be done. They did it, and now they are home. How will you care for them, how will you help heal them, now that you think you're done with them?
Neither Iraq War film is complete; both do more to simply introduce the problem without sticking around to see how a solution plays out. But not every vet suffering is as articulate, and not every vet is as ready to discuss how he feels as the men in these films are, and so that they might raise questions and start conversations across kitchen tables in America, these are important movies, and ones you should not miss.
Incident in New Baghdad is currently only available at film festivals; it will be screening in Wichita, Kansas on February 10th, and at the Boulder International Film Festival in Colorado later that month. See this site for a current list. A Marines Guide to Fishing is for sale as a DVD .
The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government.