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NEW YORK — The subtitle of “I Am an American Soldier,” the latest and one of the best of the Iraq War documentaries that have proliferated in recent years, perfectly encapsulates its premise: “One Year in Iraq With the 101st Airborne.”
A clear-eyed portrait of a 14-month tour of duty experienced by 92 soldiers, the docu provides a powerful portrait of the universality of war’s horrors and the particular complications of this one. The film is part of the World Documentary Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Director John Laurence covers the full range of the soldiers’ service: their U.S. training at Fort Campbell, complete with bellowed motivational speeches by their commanders (“It’s time to go hunting,” one exhorts, while brandishing a flag that once flew at 7 World Trade Center); their tearful goodbyes to their loved ones; their combat experiences in such places as Samarra, Baghdad and Tikrit; and their eventual return home, in some cases after their death or maiming.
The soldiers themselves, many of whom are experiencing extended tours of duty — “I feel like I got screwed,” one complains — provide extensive commentary via interviews. One 19-year-old soldier, when asked why he joined the army, responds in baffled fashion, “I don’t even know … I just ended up here.”
Many of the soldiers are initially gung-ho about their prospects: “We’re gonna go kill people, that’s awesome,” one enthuses. But it isn’t long before a more realistic sense of weariness and dread sinks one. One interview subject, hearing the sounds of gunfire during an outdoor session, says, “Hopefully we won’t get shot sitting right here.”
Their commentaries are often harrowing to listen to, like the accounts of several soldiers who were trapped inside a Humvee that caught fire after being hit by an IED.
Ultimately, the sheer bravery on display outweighs nearly every other aspect of the film. One amputee, seen being treated at Walter Reed Hospital, concentrates on his blessings even after losing a leg: “I got another one,” he points out.
Utterly lacking in pretension, “Soldier” is as clear, direct and powerful as its title.
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