Body of War goes skin deep

An earnest but one-sided look at a casualty of war.

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click to enlarge ICON OF DISSENT: Gold Star Mothers who have lost children in the Iraq War touch Tomas Young at a Washington, D.C., peace march. - Ellen Spiro/mobilus Media
Ellen Spiro/mobilus Media
ICON OF DISSENT: Gold Star Mothers who have lost children in the Iraq War touch Tomas Young at a Washington, D.C., peace march.

One thing about Body of War — it doesn't pussyfoot around. We know where the documentary stands from the moment Eddie Vedder's outraged vibrato bounds out of the gate, hammering home a protest anthem about a soldier who "spilled his blood in the dirt and the dust" and comes back to demand "We must end this war — today!"

That damaged soldier boy is Tomas Young, a 25-year-old veteran whose spinal cord was severed by a bullet in Iraq, and his is the titular body of the film's title. Paralyzed from the chest down and in constant pain, Tomas' body has become his own worst enemy. And that body is all the argument the movie needs to make its case against the war in Iraq and the politicians who perpetuate it.

The film doesn't much go in for subtlety, but it works on our emotions in a powerful, nakedly aggressive way, opening with Tomas struggling to pull his pants over his useless legs, while sound bites reverberate from the historic 2002 congressional vote over whether to grant Bush the power to go to war. The sequence is punctuated by the dull thud of Young painfully flinging his uncooperative body into a wheelchair — an audio-visual exclamation point, as is most of the movie's punctuation — followed by the names of the co-directors: Ellen Spiro and talk show icon Phil Donahue, an old-school liberal whose politics are writ large all over Body of War.

Regardless of your personal politics, there's no mistaking Young's tale as anything other than an American tragedy. His patriotic juices whipped up by Bush standing at Ground Zero with promises of smoking out evildoers, Young enlisted two days after 9/11, hoping to be sent to Afghanistan. Instead, the military pulled a switcheroo and shipped him off to Iraq, where Tomas Young was summarily shot while riding in an unarmored vehicle that offered Iraqi snipers a target not unlike ducks in a barrel. Adding insult to injury, the government bungled and skimped on Young's subsequent health care, exacerbating his already nearly unbearable condition.

Young's predicament speaks for itself, a scathing indictment of the government's handling of both the war and of the men and women it convinced to fight that war, but Body of War is not above taking a few cheap shots in order to make its case. It's an unintentional irony that one of the movie's more eloquent commentators, disabled Vietnam vet Bobby Muller, at one point chuckles at antiwar demonstrations routinely "putting the gimps out front" for the media ("They gotta have the visual," he notes). Spiro and Donahue seem conveniently oblivious that their movie does exactly the same thing.

Largely avoiding the gray areas that set great documentaries apart from puff pieces or propaganda, Body of War settles for dwelling on surefire button-pushers like Young's problems controlling his bowels, intimacy issues and erectile dysfunction (all juxtaposed with more audio clips from that infamous '02 vote), and at one point even shoves the camera into the poor guy's crotch to watch a catheter inserted into his penis. The filmmakers are clearly on Young's side, so they don't feel there's anything exploitative in their treatment of him, but Body of War fixation on its hero's suffering becomes a shameless drumbeat, with the film spending significantly more time detailing the man's pain than in providing a context for it.

When we finally get to hear Young speak directly about his antiwar activism in something more than a sound bite, he sums things up by declaring "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." It's curious how close Young's words are to the infamous Bush gang argument that got us into this mess in the first place — the only disagreement being who's wearing the white hats — but don't expect the movie to comment on that unintentional irony either.

Body of War leaves scant room for anything that might complicate its clear-cut worldview of heroes and villains. Young's supportive but self-described "conservative" father and brother (who is himself currently serving in Iraq) are never really allowed to articulate their feelings, and anything interfering with the movie's plea for an immediate exit from Iraq is swept under the rug almost as ruthlessly as Bush's bunch ignored dissenting voices against going to war. And when one of those dissenting voices, Sen. Robert Byrd, becomes Body of War's unlikely beacon of moral authority, far be it for the filmmakers to mention his former gig as Exalted Cyclops in the KKK.

In hindsight, it's easy to understand the invasion of Iraq as one of the biggest blunders in modern history, and it's even easier to demonize or ridicule everyone who initially thought it might be a good idea. Spiro and Donahue do this in spades, but the filmmakers never seem remotely interested in examining the nuances of their drama or in acknowledging how some politicians may have led us to war not out of party loyalty or some blind urge for revenge but due to carefully considered but tragically miscalculated "right reasons." For Spiro and Donahue, unwilling to extend the benefit of the doubt to anyone on the incorrect side of their fence, there are no right reasons.

The movie's heart is clearly in the right place, but Body of War does itself a disservice by being so closed-minded, often coming off like a cross between a "Co-Exist" bumper sticker and a poster of someone holding a gun to the head of a puppy. It's nice that the movie is so compassionate about its subject's damaged shell, but by rooting around in that body to the exclusion of everything else, we never really get a sense of what makes Tomas Young tick.

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