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.