“Body of War,” the story of disabled Iraq veteran Thomas Young, is as predictable an attack on the Bush administration as a raging liberal could wish for. The documentary makes no attempt at balance or impartiality and jumps straight into the ring to tear apart the credibility of the pro-war brigade. This makes for a compelling, but wildly-biased, viewing experience.
Directors Phil Donahue (yes, that Phil Donahue) and Ellen Spiro use a mix of small- and large-scale stories to convey their point. Scenes showing Young attempting to recover from the injuries he sustained after being shot just a week after arriving in Iraq are interspersed with footage from the Congressional debates over the war in October 2002. While Young learns to deal with life in a wheelchair, senators pontificate on war and the constitutional implications of granting greater executive power to the President.
Unsurprisingly, the film doesn’t just adopt a self-righteous tone but positively revels in it. The exchanges between Young’s anti-war mother and pro-war father could hardly be more simplistic, with the loyalties of the film clearly placed well on the maternal side. At Young’s wedding, his new mother-in-law tells him, “I’m only just getting to know you, but thank God you’re a liberal.”
The film’s critique spreads to familiar targets like Fox News, opposition to stem cell research, and the response to Hurricane Katrina. The soundtrack joins in the attack, featuring numerous acoustic protest songs by the likes of Eddie Vedder and Bright Eyes. These songs are certainly in keeping with the moralizing tone of the movie and their lyrics seem to be competing with the dialogue to see which can be the most strident.
For all their self-righteousness, the directors make several extremely relevant and well-argued points. Donahue and Spiro clearly spent a long time selecting clips of senate debates and their effort pays off. The scenes offer a surprising amount of black comedy as the ignorance of our leaders is made clear. As numerous senators invoke statistics that—with the benefit of hindsight—were clearly inaccurate, and make ludicrous comparisons between Saddam and Hitler, the film effectively exposes the paucity of intelligent debate seen in the lead-up to war. The smugness of politicians is also well-illustrated when Young and his wife watch President Bush at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner joking about the lack of WMDs in Iraq.
As a contrast to this criticism, the film lauds those who spoke out against the war before it began. It eventually becomes clear that these people, rather than Young, are the heroes of the story. In particular, Senator Robert Byrd is featured numerous times attacking the President and the pro-war brigade. The film’s final scene features a meeting between Byrd and Young where the former, with striking self-importance, brands the 23 senators who voted against war as “the immortal 23.” As the names of each are read aloud, the patriotic soundtrack swells and the movie finally ascends to the peak of sickening self-righteousness it threatened to reach from the outset. It’s not the soldiers—who include Young’s younger brother—fighting on the ground or the Iraqi citizens suffering daily suicide bombings that receive the film’s ultimate recognition, but rather senators in Washington. This hollow conclusion seriously detracts from the humane story the film set out to tell.
During Byrd’s filibuster in the Senate he implores: “Let the hills and valleys reverberate with your voices. Speak out!” “Body of War” willingly takes this advice and hopes that its reverberations will reach the top of Capitol Hill. It is more likely, though, that they will get lost in a deep valley.