There’s such a glut of Iraq-war documentaries that it’s easy to forget that this wave of films is uniquely historic. Never before has an American war been documented in so many ways and with so many cameras. The best films (James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments) capture the daily experience and complexity of a situation that news briefs can only hint at. But even in the most disappointing films, you can find a few moments of extraordinary footage that offer up an immediate visual sense of the war that only still photographers could previously deliver. And there’s something admirable, even in the fact that the lesser of these films (The Ground Truth, or Tribeca’s When I Came Home) disappoint only because they can’t provide the solid reporting to carry the weight of their great ambitions.
On the other hand, Deborah Scranton’s excellent documentary hands cameras to six National Guard members from New Hampshire and succeeds brilliantly by narrowing its focus: Her film attempts to explain the war, as seen through the eyes of four of these men, Republican and liberal, young and middle-aged, fathers and sons, and it evolves into a powerful record of the reservist experience. From off-color jokes (“Um, I don’t smell dead guy”) to sincere political analysis and video letters home, these soldiers show a full range of disgust and pleasure, as they carry cameras into their Humvee’s and living quarters. It makes a number of small critiques (exposing the numbing inanity of providing security to septic waste tankers and KBR/Halliburton trucks packed with cheesecake) and captures, in great detail, the moments that will later return to these soldiers in post-traumatic flashbacks: a woman killed by a contractor convoy while crossing the highway; a dog gnawing on human flesh. It’s an intimate, small-scale antidote to Sam Mendes’s bloated and overwrought Jarhead, the kind of film you’d like to screen for any loved one considering service in the armed forces.