Tomas Young enlisted on September 13, 2001, inspired by President Bush's megaphoned promised from atop the rubble at Ground Zero to get the evil-doers who attacked America. But he didn't fight in Afghanistan; he was sent to Iraq, and five days after his arrival, he was shot above the left collarbone, which severed his spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the chest down. After an abbreviated stay at Walter Reed, he returned to civilian life, attempting to live his life with a degree of normalcy while speaking out against the war he gave so much of his life for.
Filmmakers Phil Donahue (yes, that Phil Donahue) and Ellen Spiro (who also served as cinematographer) tell Young's story in Body Of War, an intimate, personal documentary portrait of a brave young man who is more than a little bitter--and for good reason. Spiro spent several months with Young, from mid- 2005 to 2006, following him through his wedding, to "Camp Casey" in Crawford, to other demonstrations and marches, in and out of hospitals for emergencies and additional procedures.
Sprio takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, remaining an objective observer and relying only on recorded events and on-the-fly interviews (no narration) to tell Young's story. He's a good subject, charismatic and funny, open and personable, occasionally prickly. He's also unimaginably candid, spilling all of the details about his medications, bathroom difficulties, and sexual problems (though the difficulties of his marriage are mostly seen in flashes or in retrospect).
He puts it all out there, so the camera doesn't blink. There's no sugarcoating his condition, as evidenced in a difficult scene where his mother has to help him insert a catheter. That's tough to watch, but somehow moving and telling as well. Other high points include his powerful encounters with families who lost their loved ones, and an emotionally complicated sequence where Young and his mother visit his younger brother, who is himself about to deploy to Iraq. Young's feelings are understandably mixed, and he explains why, but much of the power here comes from what he doesn't say, and what we observe.
Body Of War is strongest when it focuses on Young and his journey. There is a bit of a side-plot, however; Donahue and Spiro crosscut Young's story with the debates on the Senate and House floor during the run-up to the war, as Senators and Representatives from both parties argued to pass the joint resolution that gave President Bush the power to invade, while Senator Robert Byrd and precious few others warned against writing a blank check for a war with an uncertain strategy, outcome, and cost. Donahue and Spiro go so far as to keep a running tally of who voted in favor of the resolution, and while these sequences provide important (if less than subtle) context, a little of this goes a long way. That said, it does lead to the terrific ending where Young meets and talks with Byrd, who by this point is arguably the film's other hero.
For a film shot with handheld video cameras, Body of War looks surprisingly good; its anamorphic image is clear and well-defined, with a minimum of video noise. The picture only gets muddy during some under-lit night-time shots. Overall, however, a fine transfer.
The 2.0 stereo audio is also surprisingly solid, especially by documentary standards. The dialogue is clear, front and center in the mix, nicely accompanied by Eddie Vedder's original music.
Docurama has assembled a full complement of interesting special features here. First up is Eddie Vedder's "No More" Music Video (4:00), a good video for a very good song, though the picture quality here is noticeably lower than when the clips within it are seen in the film; there's a bit of pixilation in the non-anamorphic image.
The longest, and most valuable, of the arsenal of extras is Donahue and Spiro's appearance on "Bill Moyers' Journal" (36:00), seen in its original full-frame presentation from PBS. Moyers' interview, unsurprisingly, is in-depth, thoughtful , and smart. Some good background is also provided by the "MSNBC Interview: Phil Donahue and Robert Byrd" (11:00), a clip from Donahue's short-lived MSNBC program, in which Donahue interviews the senator following the 2002 vote profiled in the film. Byrd gives a good interview, and this is an interesting (and brief) bit of filler. Also interesting, if less essential, is the montage of "CSPAN Coverage of the House and Senate Debates" (21:00), with short clips from both sides of the debate, separated into sub-clips (viewable individually or with a "play all" option) organized by topic. Much of this is interesting, but most of the best stuff is seen in the film itself.
The disc also includes about 12 minutes of Deleted Scenes. Most of them are fairly worthwhile (a particular highlight is the "Holiday Cheer" clip, which shows us a little more of Young's father, a conservative Republican at ideological odds with his son and his wife) and appear to have been cut either to reduce running time (the film itself runs a tight 87 minutes) and redundancy.
The special features are rounded out by a non-anamorphic Theatrical Trailer, "Take Action" (a text listing of relevant websites), Filmmaker Bios, and the usual "About Docurama" text spiel and accompanying Docurama Trailers.
Body of War is a potent piece of political documentary filmmaking, thoughtful and engaging with its fair share of righteous indignation. This viewer's only reservations are structural ones, as I'm not sure that using the Senate vote as a framing device ultimately helps the film; it's interesting, but splits our focus too often from the real subject of the film. That complaint aside, this is a powerful film and worth seeking out. Recommended.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.