Body of War



Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- A matter-of-fact but pointedly critical commentary on the Iraq War, "Body of War" focuses on how soldiers got sent to Iraq and the shape in which they're coming back, leaving the rest to the nightly news. A crowded marketplace makes boxoffice unpredictable, but identification with a single protagonist gives "War" something to set it apart from other antiwar documentaries. It also was tapped by Toronto as the second runner-up behind "Eastern Promises" and first runner-up "Juno" as the audience award winner.

Like men of another generation who enlisted after Pearl Harbor, Tomas Young joined the Army on Sept. 13, 2001, after seeing President Bush stand in front of Ground Zero rubble and promise to hunt down those who attacked us. He expected to go to Afghanistan in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, but eventually found himself shipped off to Iraq. For about five days -- after which his unarmored vehicle was attacked, and an AK-47 round pierced his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed.

We meet Tomas shortly before his marriage to Brie, a determined woman who we see searching online for ways to help control Tomas' unpredictable bowels. Brie and Tomas' mother, Cathy, help him with large and small things during the film -- at one point, the camera watches uncomfortably while Cathy puts a catheter in her son's penis so he can empty his bladder.

Tomas' paralysis affects him in ways viewers might not expect. His body can't regulate its temperature, so he has to wear a vest filled with ice packs when going to Crawford, Texas, to appear at one of Cindy Sheehan's rallies. He gets light-headed easily, so he takes dramatic pauses while addressing a church gathering in Brooklyn. Despite the discomfort, he's determined to travel the country arguing against a war he now sees as illegitimate.

In between scenes of this campaign, filmmakers Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue cut back to October 2003, when the White House made its case for invading Iraq. We hear the president make assertions we now know to be incorrect, and, damningly, we hear his talking points parroted by one senator after another while Congress debates giving him the authority to use military force. Republicans are most ardent in beating these tidbits of misinformation into the public's mind, but "War" makes a point of catching prominent figures like Hillary Clinton doing exactly the same thing. John Kerry, for his part, reports that Saddam Hussein likely will have a nuclear weapon within a year.

From the opening scenes and through to the end, the film returns to the roll call that followed this debate, mercilessly listing every senator who voted for the measure. It also returns to footage of Sen. Robert Byrd, aged but fiery, as he begs his colleagues not to give in to the power grab. Byrd has taken his share of ribbing on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" for his over-the-top oratorical style, but he comes off as a hero here, standing up for an unpopular principle and foreseeing what effects a "yea" vote would have.

The back-and-forth feels disjointed at points, but as we spend time with Tomas -- who feels he's not getting adequate care from Army doctors -- we understand. Yes, the filmmakers want to draw attention to the plight of those who come home disabled from Iraq. But they also want to move beyond the easy excoriation of President Bush and remind us, indelibly, of each legislator who gave him the keys to the car.

This movie wants to help make things better. But it also -- fervently, and for a purpose -- holds a grudge.

Phil Donahue Enterprises/Mobilus Media
Directors-producers: Ellen Spiro, Phil Donahue
Executive producer: Phil Donahue
Director of photography: Ellen Spiro
Music: Eddie Vedder, Jeff Layton
Co-producer: Karen Bernstein
Editor: Bernadine Colish
Running time -- 88 minutes
No MPAA rating