Some documentaries enlighten. The best documentaries do both. Case Directed by Ellen Spiro, a professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, and Phil Donahue, the former television host whose last television program was cancelled by MSNBC (ostensibly for low ratings, but probably for his liberal-progressive views), Body of War, a deeply moving, ultimately heart-wrenching documentary, follows Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran injured in 2005 during an assault on convoy, his arduous rehab, physical setbacks, his marriage, and his political activism as a member of the Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). Bright, articulate, and passionate, Young found purpose and meaning by becoming a vocal advocate against the war. He also became an advocate for quality healthcare for Iraq War veterans.
Five days into Young’s tour of Iraq, Young was shot in the left collarbone as was riding in an unarmored, uncovered personnel carrier. The bullet pierced his spinal column, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. Before losing consciousness, he felt nothing in his arms and legs. He awoke a week later in an Army hospital in Germany. From there, several months of rehab followed before the Army officially discharged. Back home in Kansas City, Missouri, Young married his fiancÃ©, Brie and they moved in together. His mother, Cathy Smith, a staunch opponent of the Iraq War (and married to a conservative Republican), also stepped in to help with Young’s rehab, even a she watched Tomas’ younger brother, Nathan, an infantryman in the Army like his brother, gets called up for a tour of duty in Iraq.
To his considerable credit, Young lays his life open to Spiro, Donahue, and by extension, members of the audience. For Young, every day was (and is) a constant struggle. Besides the paralysis, the injury to his spinal column left Young with other physical problems (e.g., urinary and bowel problems, body temperature regulation, etc.) that require heavy medication. Body of War takes us through practically every aspect of Young’s daily routine, up to including the erectile dysfunction that strains his relationship with Brie to the use of a catheter (shown in graphic detail). Unfortunately, the only hope for recovery lies in stem cell research. Not surprisingly, Young appeared in a television ad for Claire McCaskill, the Democratic candidate for Senate from Missouri. McCaskill won.
Body of War also tracks Young as he becomes increasingly active in politics, first participating in the 2005 demonstrations led by Cindy Sheheen, who lost a son in Iraq, at President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, where he met Gold Star Mothers (an organization of women who’ve lost their sons in Iraq), and veterans from the Vietnam and Iraq War. Over the next two years, Young became a vocal advocate for Iraq War Veterans (specifically healthcare) while he continued to speak out against the war and occupation of Iraq as illegal and immoral. Mike Wallace interviewed Young for a segment on 60 Minutes, but even as he raised his public profile, his relationship with Brie suffered.
Spiro and Donahue interweave Bush’s 2002 speech calling for congressional authorization to use military force against Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein from using or expanding his (presumed) stockpile of WMDs. While many observers at the time argued that the authorization would give Bush a blank check for invading Iraq, the House of Representatives passed the bill by a vote o 296-133. The Senate passed their version of the bill by a vote of 77-23. Robert Byrd, the senior senator from West Virginia gave an eloquent, passionate speech calling for more time or a different approach. Byrd’s speech is replayed in parts throughout Body of War, as are snippets of speeches by Republicans and some Democrats who argued in defense of the authorization and some Democrats who argued against the authorization. Body of War concludes with Young meeting Senator Byrd in Washington, D.C. It’s a cathartic moment for both men and a fitting ending for Body of War.
There’s no doubt, of course, of Spiro and Donahue’s political propensities. Likewise with Young’s views on the Iraq War or his political affiliation. Young is a self-identified Democrat, an affiliation that predates his return from the Iraq War. Young volunteered for the U.S. Army on September 13,2001, two days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It felt it was his duty to serve and protect the United States against its enemies. But once the focus changed from Afghanistan to Iraq, he began to his doubts after the Bush administration’s true intentions. His awakening came at a price that 28,000 other injured soldiers have also paid (almost 4,000 have lost their lives as of this review). Ultimately, Body of War is a stark reminder of the human cost incurred whenever we, as a nation, go to war and invade another country.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10