'Combat Obscura': Film Review

A Rorschach test on the war in Afghanistan.

A Marine videographer repurposes material from Afghanistan for a you-are-there documentary.

Miles Lagoze was fresh from high school when he entered the Marine Corps, sent to Afghanistan to make videos that presented Marines' work in a wholesome fashion for use on military channels or by outlets like CNN. That meant cutting out a lot of the texture of daily life in his battalion, but Lagoze kept the footage he couldn't use, and now refashions it as Combat Obscura, a warts-and-all look at in-the-trenches behavior and misbehavior. A viewer's response here will have much to do with her feelings about America's endless wars, but on all sides of the issue, theatrical potential is limited: More polished docs like Restrepo have covered similar ground in less scattered fashion, usually giving more coherent pictures of military operations while they're at it.

With no narration or informative titles and very little in the way of substantive interviews, the film plays as a string of impressions and amusements, generally with no obvious connection between one scene and the next. A large percentage of scenes observe the many ways men in this camp keep their spirits up amid the monotony and danger of their assignment — they cheer for each others' freestyle raps, do limbering exercises before an expected firefight (don't forget the trigger-finger drills) and bolster each other's confidence. And in downtime, they smoke hash.

Indulgence in local intoxicants is surely one of the things Lagoze's bosses hate for the civilian public to see, and it's surprising they didn't have some legal framework in place to maintain ownership of this footage. More upsetting is the lightheartedness the men show when they find the corpse of a shopkeeper they've accidentally killed. Gallows humor doesn't necessarily demonstrate moral indifference, but it doesn't look good.

Interactions with local children also open themselves to multiple readings: The cheerfulness with which one Marine entertains some kids warms the heart initially, but when he uses his rifle scope's laser to bounce a red dot along their torsos, it's hard not to see a callous foreshadowing of accidents to come.

Predictably, the film's most involving moments watch as the men do battle. The teenaged cameraman shows a lot of boldness as he stands alongside men being shot at without being able to carry his own rifle. When men are wounded, he chases along with those getting them to med-evac helicopters, sometimes too late. And he sits respectfully at a funeral service, watching as ceremonial gestures are reenacted far from where a fallen Marine will be buried.

Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Director-producer: Miles Lagoze
Directors of photography: Miles Lagoze, Justin Loya
Editor: Eric Schuman

70 minutes