There's a black screen, and then a big sound. But as The War Tapes opens, the atomizing percussion of artillery is followed by an intimate, human noise: The heavy, quavering sigh of the soldier who's holding the video camera as his unit faces unseen attackers in Fallujah.
That sigh ... an exhalation alloyed of resignation and fear ... suggests much of what's best in Deborah Scranton's documentary built around footage shot by 10 U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq. But The War Tapes' tagline, "the first war movie filmed by soldiers themselves," is only partly true: The film's value also lies in what Scranton does with that footage, and in what the soldiers, their families and colleagues yield to Scranton's own camera.
The soldiers are National Guardsmen on one-year deployments. War Tapes follows three in particular, all from Massachusetts, meeting them stateside and in March 2004 following them overseas to Camp Anaconda, "the most attacked base in the country."
There's Sgt. Stephen Pink, a sardonic 24-year-old who writes harshly insightful journal entries ("Today was the first day I shook a man's hand that wasn't attached to his arm."). Michael Moriarity, a 34-year-old furloughed forklift driver and married dad, enlisted after 9/11. And Zack Bazzi, a 24-year-old college student, native Lebanese and fluent speaker of Arabic who joined the military because he wanted to travel, is a lonely liberal in a company of reflexive Bush backers.
Regardless of their motives for serving, all three soldiers/video diarists quickly arrive at skepticism and futility. Assigned to guard the supply trucks of defense contractors Kellogg Brown Root/Halliburton ... whose drivers earn multiples of soldiers' pay ... even self-styled super-patriot Moriarity concludes that corporate profits are valued over soldiers' safety. His suggested remedy for "innocent U.S. soldiers ... getting killed" is "nuke the fuckin' country."
Surviving improvised explosive devices and rocket-propelled grenades is surely dramatic enough. But the film's subtler tension is between who we expect the soldiers to be and who they are. Hardnosed Moriarity, for instance, is a softy for kids (as well as self-conscious about his double chin). We see and hear soldiers teasing, swearing, complaining, criticizing, even expressing mutinous sentiments. It's a wonder military censors let it all pass.
In unveiling war's realities, there's no substitute for this film's soldierly candor, or for jarring and gruesome footage from the front lines. But credit Scranton too. The editing echoes skepticism about the mission, as when footage of a septic-waste truck Buzzi is guarding as it sprays shit onto a roadside, cuts directly into President Bush announcing, "This is a day of great hope for the Iraqis."
Moreover, it's Scranton's talking-head interviews and other home-front footage that reveal much of the humanity in the War Tapes' protagonists, of whom the least enthused about the war retains his love of soldiering, while the most gung-ho grows to loathe it.