In 2004, the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned the collection of wartime writings by American soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines (soldiers) serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and of their families at home. The NEA received 10,000 pages of correspondence, personal journals, essays, short stories, and poetry. Some of that material was released in 2006 in the 416-page anthology Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families by Random House. In 2007, eleven selections from the anthology were brought to the screen in director Richard Robbins' film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience.
The eleven selections are all written by soldiers either serving in the combat zone or charged with transporting the wounded or dead. Though some of the stories are clearly written by men dispirited by, or disillusioned with, the war in Iraq, as a whole, the selections neither support nor indite the invasion or occupation.
Selected were Colby Buzzell's Men in Black, Sangjoon Han's Aftermath, Ed Hrivnak's Medevac Missions, Parker Gyokeres' Camp Muckamungus, Brian Turner's Here Bullet Ashbah and What Every Soldier Should Know, Denis Prior's Distant Thunder, Jack Lewis' Road Work, Mike Strobl's Taking Chance, and Jon McCary's To the Fallen. Many of the original writings and even some of the film segments can be found online.
The selections are presented as narration over disparately stylized short videos. The readings are done by actors Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart, Christopher Gorham, John Krasinski, Justin Kirk, Josh Lucas and Blair Underwood. The visuals range from documentary footage to animation, but mostly consist of stylized reenactments.
The eleven selections are interspersed by interviews with the authors, as well as prior war writers such as WW-II vet Paul Fussell, Korean-War vet James Salter, Vietnam vets Tim O'Brien, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Tobias Wolf, and Gulf-War vet Anthony Swofford.
The segments are of varying quality. Some, especially those that strive for humor, fall flat yet they are still worthy because they feel authentic: it feels like the real gallows humor that soldiers share and which is no doubt appreciated in a laugh-so-you-don't-cry manner that just doesn't translate well. Many of the selections though are insightful into the personal experience of combat and its aftermath. Oddly, perhaps the most emotionally powerful is the account not of a soldier in the combat zone, but instead that of Marine Corps Lt. Colonel Mike Strobl who escorted the remains of Pfc. Chance Phelps from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to his hometown of Clifton, Colorado. Voiced by Robert Duvall and accompanied simply by documentary footage of the road between Billings Montana and Clifton, and footage of the town itself, the selection conveys the solemnity of the occasion.
A stunning and beautiful film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience is marred by a poor release from Docudrama Films.
Shot on high-definition video, the 1.78:1 image looks exceptionally good, therefore it is completely unforgiveable of Docudrama to letterbox this release. This film deserves an anamorphic release.
Although the box claims that this is a 5.1 release, in fact it is merely 2.0. Although the 2.0 mix is better than most, it's unfortunate that Docudrama did not provide the mix promised.
The extras include an additional 18 minutes of interviews, a further poem reading, eight minutes of additional documentary footage and storyboards, the theatrical trailer, a filmmaker bio, and trailers for other Docudrama DVD releases.
Filmmaker Richard Robbins has done a remarkable job bringing these personal stories of war and its aftermath to the screen in a manner that reaches viewers without diminishing the intimacy of the writings. Despite the poor job done by Docudrama on the disc, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience is recommended.