News is often focused on the death toll: as of November 5, 2007, 3,855 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war. This count does not include those killed in Afghanistan, nor does it include soldiers from other nations, nor does it include deaths of Iraqi civilians. Headlines are made regarding the death toll on a monthly basis - was October a better year for our military than September?
It makes sense for the media to focus on these numbers. Death is final. Death is an understandable event. We can mentally accept death as something of a scorecard. But consider another statistic: the official count finds 28,385 troops wounded to date. That's 28,385 of our nation's finest returning home broken - including the highest number of amputees since the Civil War. They must face the permanence of injury as they struggle to move forward with their lives.
HBO's stirring documentary "Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq" finds James Gandolfini sitting down with a handful of wounded vets who share their experiences in a heartbreaking attempt to bring the war closer to home for those of us fortunate enough not to have experienced such horrors. The presentation is simple: the one-on-one interviews are conducted on a bare stage, with no set distractions to turn our attention away from these young veterans. Their words are accompanied by home videos taken both at home and at war - and, in a brutal but honest decision by the filmmakers, by videos released by insurgents, showing the very attacks the interviewees describe.
Some of this is gruesome stuff. Among the footage provided are shots of one soldier's violent arm injury, a snapshot of an unidentified man with his brains scattered next to him on the street, video of an insurgent being shot to death. The squeamish might balk at being asked to face such imagery, but such sights are vital to understanding the grim nature of war.
They are also vital to understanding what these veterans experienced, and why their adjustment to "normal" life is so difficult. (Of course, some of us will never understand when injured soldiers tell of their desires to return to battle, but that's another story.) Such images remove any abstractness from the discussion of the war. This, the documentary tells us, is how it is.
The subjects interviewed are vastly varied in their experiences. Some greet their wounds with optimism, others with dire pessimism. Some injuries are physical, others mental - often both. Post-traumatic stress is an inescapable fact of war, and a common thread of these interviews is seeing how these veterans work through it. One soldier has become angry and bitter, not at what he has become, but what he may become; the idea of being a crazy vet frightens him, and it shows in his terse insistence that PTSD will not defeat him.
PTSD is not the only mental challenge facing these wounded vets. The mere concept of living with less than a whole body is an enormous burden to place on such young people. (And young they are - all interviewed are in their twenties.) One woman, whose arm and shoulder were torn off during an attack, takes a long pause to contemplate the notion of never being able to hold her future children in two arms.
Even at their bleakest, these stories often contain a dose of victory. The title comes from a phrase referring to the day a soldier narrowly escapes death. While one interviewee is correct in his cynical take on such a term (why would anyone want to be annually reminded of the worst day of their life?), the term does have an uplifting side to it: I'm still here, dammit. There's something joyous in watching a good ol' country girl, one leg amputated, another crippled, return to her home town for a night of line dancing.
Of course, "Alive Day" is far from celebratory. With every new face we meet, every fresh scar we see, we're reminded of the high cost of war. The filmmakers smartly leave politics out of the equation, pushing instead for the raw truth of the matter. As a host, Gandolfini remains mostly quiet (and is almost entirely off camera), offering questions only when the time is right, understanding when to simply let the soldiers tell their stories on their own terms. This is not a time for debate, or for Hollywood grandstanding. It is instead a time to assess the somber reality that faces every man and woman who choose to serve our nation.
Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, "Alive Day" looks crisp and clean in its no-frills digital video set-up, while the archival home video footage is understandably dingier. The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is equally passable, with no problems yet no need for anything fancy. No subtitles are offered, although the disc is closed-captioned.
"Alive Day" is another admirable entry in HBO's documentary war-themed lineup. The personal angle is always highly welcome, and the veterans seen here have so much to share, making this film essential viewing for everyone. However, the film's limited running time (just shy of an hour), the disc's lack of bonus material, the fact that such brutal subject matter doesn't exactly invite repeat viewings (outside of, say, the classroom), and HBO's relatively high asking price all suggest that while the film itself is unquestionably Highly Recommended, the disc's drawbacks suggest you'll be perfectly fine if you just Rent It.