Body of War

Director: Phil Donahue

Cast: Tomas Young, Sen. Robert Byrd

Genre: Documentary

Rated: NR

Review By:
Michael Dance

NYU Tisch '07

"...And hey, I met you. You are not cool." -Almost Famous

Release Date: April 11th, 2008
Overall Grade: A-

Body of War

Review By: Michael Dance

Click here to read our interview with Phil Donahue and Tomas Young

Body of War

We’re finally nearing the end of the Hollywood studios’ annual process of dumping their junk films into theaters during the year’s first quarter. But before you get into full-on summer mode and start freaking out about Iron Man, you should see Body of War, a film with two qualities that have been sorely lacking in most 2008 films so far: passion and intelligence.

Yep, it’s a documentary about the Iraq War, a subject that will no doubt inspire many to avoid the film at all costs. But even if only anti-Bush documentary hounds see the movie, it won’t just be preaching to the choir, because the story it tells casts the entire conflict in an under-explored light.

Body of War plays as a good companion to No End in Sight, last year’s level-headed, well-researched critique of the Iraq invasion. While that film explained all of the agonizingly avoidable mistakes made "” building the case to invade on suspicious intelligence, disbanding the Iraqi army, and plenty more "” Body of War focuses on the other side, the human aspect, embodied by a paralyzed veteran named Tomas Young. Both films will make you very angry.

Young enlisted in the army on September 13th, 2001 after seeing Bush, standing in the rubble of Ground Zero, giving his speech about smiting out all the evildoers. He was 25 and had been in Iraq for a week when he was shot in the spine, leaving him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and providing him with side effects like the inability to cough.

The film follows his troubled recovery and involvement in the anti-war protest movement, periodically switching back to footage of Congress debating the resolution to authorize Bush to invade Iraq. “Debating” is a loose term here; the footage is cut together like one of those quick Daily Show montages of supposedly intelligent politicians repeating each others’ rhetoric over and over again: “We cannot wait for the final proof that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” “If we leave Saddam unchecked, the result could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” “We could be facing a mushroom cloud.” And so on.

There are a few voices of reason, led by the now ninety-year-old senator Robert Byrd, who begs his peers not to rush through the resolution and give the president power that the Constitution specifically gives the Legislature. Young’s antiwar efforts eventually lead him to meet Byrd in the climax of the film, giving the two opposing strands some cohesion.

The point of the juxtaposition is of course to show us the human suffering caused by a rubber-stamped, politically-minded vote. Though a good message, it’s often heavy-handed, as when Byrd and Young read

off the “immortal 23″ senators who opposed the resolution while patriotic music swells up on the soundtrack.

The movie works best when we’re simply a fly on the wall to Young’s adversity, be it problems in his fledgling marriage or how, during a speech, he keeps stopping because he can’t hold his head upright for too long. One stand-out scene shows, in full detail, his mom helping him use a catheter to drain excess urine, and what you think is going to be an uncomfortable-to-say-the-least moment ends with mother and son laughing hysterically.

The lack of ego and relatively little self-pity Young has is astounding. Things other documentary subjects might rather keep private, he’s completely open about, both in terms of his physical issues (“There’s a whole ‘erection’ sidebar to my problems, too,” he remarks at one point) and his mental state. He’ll describe how he sometimes stares jealously at people walking, and the constantly casual tone he keeps even when describing these darker places of his psyche is at once admirable and heartbreaking.

During the Congress scenes, a debate played out in my own head: how accountable should those who voted in favor – including famous democrats like John Edwards, John Kerry, and Hilary Clinton – be held? Isn’t it easy to judge them and their repetitive rhetoric now that Iraq has proven to be a disaster? Faced with the knowledge they had, how could they have known?

But it’s not just a case of hindsight being 20-20. The signs were there that Iraq would become a mess and any elected official has a duty to explore that. The warning against giving the president so much power is right there in the Constitution. And the fear-mongering? Well, it was pretty obviously just that. Byrd reads a quote early in the film:

“People can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” "”Hermann Goering, second in command of the Third Reich

As a result of the hasty decision, made three weeks before an election, American troops are returning home in wheelchairs and body bags, and the uninjured are returning for extended tours of duty. Just ask Tomas’s younger brother, who’s serving in Iraq right now.

Movie Grade: A-


Body of War is an intimate and transformational feature documentary about the true face of war today. Meet Tomas Young, 25 years old, paralyzed from a bullet to his spine – wounded after serving in Iraq for less than a week.

Body of War is Tomas’ coming home story as he evolves into a new person, coming to terms with his disability and finding his own

unique and passionate voice against the war. The film is produced and directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, and features two original songs by Eddie Vedder. Body of War is a naked and honest portrayal of what it’s like inside the body, heart and soul of this extraordinary and heroic young man.

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