Saturday, July 08, 2006

Soldiers provide the images, firepower of `The War Tapes'

At one point in the gripping documentary "The War Tapes" ((star)(star)(star)(star)), a National Guardsman doing his bit for Operation Iraqi Freedom explains what a certain wail on the soundtrack signifies. It's "the all-clear" siren, he says, even though the siren's pitch is nerve-wracking--the sound of imminent danger as opposed to temporary safety.

It's one of a hundred meaningful details in director Deborah Scranton's film, which is hers in name only. In early 2004 Scranton was offered the Faustian bargain of embedding herself with the New Hampshire National Guard. She declined, proposing a better idea: Give a handful of Guardsmen lightweight video cameras and let them film the war their way, as it happens.

At Fort Dix, N.J., Scranton convinced 10 soldiers heading to Iraq to do just that. Five of the 10 filmed much of their entire hitch; three came from C Company, 3rd Battalion of the 172nd Infantry Regiment. From their footage Scranton, producer/editor Steve James ("Reel Paradise," "Hoop Dreams") and co-editor Leslie Simmer assembled a fascinating chronicle of wartime, told by several distinct and vivid narrators.

The men of the 172nd include Sgt. Stephen Pink, who reveals in his journal writings to be a fervent, eloquent poet and, by tour's end, a blunt critic of the war itself. "We're in Iraq for money and oil," he says. Specialist Mike Moriarty, a Harley-Davidson mechanic from Windsor, N.H., voices complex, sometimes conflicted opinions about the job he's been asked to do. "It's a done deal. We're in Iraq," he says, shutting down any discussion of the war's rationale.

Back home, Moriarty rejoins his wife, who sees a changed man. "His temper . . . it's back," she says, leaving a good deal more unsaid. A lesser, agenda-minded doc would leave it at that and call the whole thing a fiasco. "The War Tapes" goes deeper. It does not ridicule the men who believe in the war, even as its soldier-videographers pull together evidence--combat footage of alarming immediacy, rage and cultural miscomprehension on all sides--against it. What's remarkable is how these disparate soldiers unite, in muttered tones, against a common foe: the well-paid subcontracted employees of Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc. (the former Kellogg, Brown & Root), whose profits can barely be measured in dollars anymore and whose security is the soldiers' business.



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