One of the toughest films I've sat through in recent memory wasn't at a film festival (though, to be sure, you can always find some good downers at a fest), it was a screener of James Gandolfini's first project since The Sopranos, a documentary for HBO called Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. Disconcerting though it was to see Tony Soprano being warm and fuzzy, that wasn't the tough part to get through; the hard part was watching ten young men and women who, while serving in the armed forces in Iraq, nearly died there. All of them have been scarred in one way or another by their near-death experiences in Iraq.
The format is pretty simple: take a group of battle-scarred soldiers, sit them down one-by-one with Gandolfini on a sparse set hung with black velvet curtains, and let their stories speak for themselves. The soldiers' stories are interspersed with footage -- some of it, we're told at the beginning, taken by insurgents -- of the events that caused their injuries. It's not pretty; actually, it's pretty damn horrifying to watch a truck or tank driving down the road, see it get blown up, and know there are people inside, someone's sons and daughters. It's pretty damn horrifying, too, to see an arm or leg or head or torso all mangled and bloody, to see men and women crying in pain.
It's horrifying, too, to see a solidier, strong and active, intelligence shining out of his eyes, in home video and then to see that same solidier now, in a wheelchair, living with the effects of a traumatic brain injury caused by two bullets to his head. It's hard to hear the slight tremor underlying his mother's voice as she talks optimistically about the hope that her son will walk again, to see the pain in her eyes when he sings "From the halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli ... " with all the exuberance of a small child. She is happy to have her son still alive, no doubt, and proud of his service to the Marine Corps, but this is what her son is now, and the likelihood that he will ever again be the man he was before Iraq is slim. It's ugly, it's raw, and it's real, but these are the horrors of war. War may bring spoils to some, but to the soldiers on the battlefield (how many of them are the sons or daughters of the people who sent them there?), to the children hit by napalm, the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, war is just cities reduced to rubble, bodies blown to pieces, families and communities torn apart. War is not pretty, or glamorous, it's not flags waving and fists raised in victory. Writers since time out of mind have documented war and all its horrors, and in this century, we've seen war in all it's technicolor glory, and yet, somehow, we seem to keep getting into them, and then not getting out of them.
Alive Day Memories shows the reality of war: war is blood, and bombs, and blown up tanks, and a lot of sons and daughters, husbands and wives, sent home, if not in coffins, in pieces. Witness the former gymnast, with his once beautifully muscled strong legs as he leaps and twists gracefully at a competition; now witness that same man, his legs blown off, showing the world the ugly stumps where his gymnast's legs once were. Witness the young woman, one leg blown off, the other mangled and skin-grafted, who wants to go back and serve again, but will settle for a turn on the dance floor.
If you've been paying attention lately, you've probably noticed there are an awful lot of documentaries being made about 9/11, terrorism, and the war in Iraq. From Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, to James Longley's Iraq in Fragments; from Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight (the best of the lot by far, to date) to Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side, which I'm longing to see; from Phil Donahue's TIFF Body of War (playing at the Toronto International Film Festival), which tells the story of one former solider who's now an anti-war activist, to Alive Day Memories, with James Gandolfini introducing us to this cross-section of America's sons and daughters scarred by this war -- never before has a war in action been so scrutinized, so analyzed, so put in front of us in movie theaters, on CNN headline news, on Larry King Live, on The Daily Show -- and yet, according to a stat I heard recently some 25% of Americans in a poll on President Bush's job approval rating think he's doing swimmingly.
That we are still in Iraq with, as Ferguson's film so eloquently points out, no end in sight to the loss, the sacrifice, the carnage, the terrorism, the insurgency, the car bombs, the tanks blown up, the civilians and soldiers killed, is reason enough for more films about Iraq -- including this one -- to continue to be made. There are at least five or six Iraq war projects I can think of off the top of my head in production or pre-prod, and no doubt way more than that being considered. What makes Alive Day Memories unique is its simplicity: Gandolfini simply takes these ten men and women and parades their reality in front of us, letting the soldiers speak for themselves. It's hard to watch, but with what they've been through, they deserve, at the very least, the chance to tell their stories.
No matter which side of the debate on the Iraq War you might fall on, their stories deserve to be heard, they deserve for you to listen to their stories, to see the truth of their sacrifice. And they deserve, most of all, for us to question, question, and question some more the whys and wherefores of what got us into this war, and to figure out what the hell will get us out before any more American soldiers have to celebrate their Alive Days -- before any more need to celebrate what, as one soldier in the film wryly puts "the worst day of my life."
Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq premieres on HBO tonight, Sunday, September 9 at 10:30PM EST. If you don't have HBO, never fear: from 11:30PM tonight through September 16, HBO will allow users to stream Alive Day on the HBO website. Check it out.