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All’s Fair in Love and War

Big-screen responses to media obsessions both frivolous (The Break-Up) and serious (The War Tapes).

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Illustration by Wes Duvall  

Whatever its military failures, the Bush administration has been brilliantly successful in keeping Iraq from becoming a “living-room war”—Michael Arlen’s seminal description of the Vietnam that turned up so shockingly on American TV screens in the sixties. Now that reporters in Iraq are as hamstrung by the threat of being kidnapped or killed as they are by the rules of journalistic engagement, we’re especially dependent on such extraordinary documentaries as Baghdad ER and Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes—a film that illuminates the psyches of the men and women on whose shoulders this debacle sits, and who will ultimately carry the horror home.

It’s ironic that the apparatus of television news has become so heavy and clumsy, because the apparatus of filmmaking is increasingly small and light; and to demonstrate this, Scranton and her colleagues managed to do an end run around the Bush administration in 2004 by supplying several National Guardsmen stationed in Iraq with mini DVD cameras and tripods on which to mount them, even in the heat of battle. (This wasn’t surreptitious—the National Guard signed on.)

The War Tapes isn’t raw vérité: Scranton and her team edited more than 1,000 hours of tape down to a taut 97 minutes. The focus is not on the government’s strategy, or lack thereof. It’s on individual guardsmen before, during, and after their time in Iraq. And what we see is not so much war as hell but war as a corrosive mixture of hell and limbo, with carnage so ubiquitous and random that it would be laughably absurd if it weren’t so tragic.

Scranton profiles three guardsmen: Sergeants Steve Pink and Zack Bazzi and Specialist Mike Moriarty. Pink is the aspiring writer who gives us a taste of the grisly humor that helps soldiers to cope—for example, an account of an argument over whether a severed limb looks like raw hamburger or pot roast. Moriarty is the gung-ho patriot—a good man who cites September 11 and the lives of his kids, and who sometimes mouths nuke-’em platitudes to stay revved up. Bazzi is the more inscrutable specimen—a native of Lebanon whose doting mother brought him to the U.S. from what was, she says, the worst place on earth, and who enlisted to go to another as soon as he came of age.

The War Tapes portrays day-to-day life in a world without a compass. It’s marked by distant explosions (“Every time you hear a boom, somebody’s going to heaven”) and convoys’ rushing to the sites of flaming wrecks with charred corpses of Iraqi civilians and bits of debris from lost lives—like the bicycle mounted on the top of a blackened car. A soldier carves a wooden pistol because he’s not allowed to carry a real one. Guardsmen express irritation with the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root, which runs the American stores and charges hefty amounts for paper plates of bad food. Driving through the desert, Moriarty asks a fellow Guardsman about the aims of the war, and the man dutifully recites something about creating a freer and more stable Middle East. He adds he’d also like to buy everybody in the world a puppy. Instead of seeing puppies, though, we get pieces of a young woman who made the mistake of crossing a road on which American trucks barrel recklessly along. A soldier says he watched, helpless, as she was knocked unconscious by one truck and then turned into—indisputably—hamburger by several more. The hamburger description isn’t his; he’s weeping that his people just killed someone they were there to protect.

In interviews back home, Scranton just scratches the surface of the trauma the soldiers are experiencing—in part out of respect for men who have bared so much already, in part because not a lot needs to be said. See The War Tapes. Maybe this picture can be worth a thousand lives.

While soldiers and civilians were dying out of sight, the nation breathlessly followed the story of Brad and Jen and Angelina and Vince. Why, their picture even adorns this column. Audiences for The Break-Up will go in wondering, Will there be signs onscreen of Jen’s fragile emotional state? Will she and Vince have sexy chemistry, paving the way for a storybook rebound for America’s princess?

It’s hard to tell if they have chemistry, since the movie concerns an excruciating split. In fact, given their broad characters—he’s a childish, sports-loving, proudly Polish slob, she’s a well-coiffed, ballet-loving aesthete—it’s hard to figure how they bought and decorated an expensive Chicago condo together in the first place. Has there ever been a couple the audience has rooted so hard to see broken the hell up already?

The Break-Up is a routine, stereotype-stuffed sitcom with pretensions. The director, Peyton Reed, is an aesthete, too (he made the overbearingly stylized Doris Day deconstruction Down With Love), and he clearly wants to push the standard Vince-Ben-Owen-Luke adolescent yukfest into edgier and more emotionally ambivalent territory. But the movie plays like Scenes From a Marriage for 14-year-olds.


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