'Only the Dead': Melbourne Review

Only the Dead
Gripping if not quite essential viewing.

A video diary of the Iraq War by former Time and CNN correspondent Michael Ware.

A series of scrappy handycam dispatches from the frontlines of Iraq, Australian journalist Michael Ware’s Only the Dead resembles a YouTube deep dive on a particularly well-fortified night. A former correspondent for CNN and Time, Ware (sharing writing duties with Justine A. Rosenthal) narrates his own jerky handheld footage — covering the invasion, the unraveling occupation and especially the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — with bluntness. There’s not much in the way of new insight here and Ware’s more ruminative discursions feel distinctly dime-store, but his chaotic images offer a frighteningly immediate snapshot of a recent history that led unmistakably to the ascendancy of the Islamic State.

Ware appears positively chipper when we first meet him, in his 30’s and “still young and dumb enough for war to have its false sense of adventure.” Somewhere along the way he picks up a camcorder, recording hundreds of hours of footage over the next 10 years. Ware, co-director Bill Guttentag (2009’s Soundtrack for a Revolution) and editor Jane Moran have distilled it all down to 78 minutes, though even that runtime can’t obscure the absence of any connective tissue linking these often gory, sometimes disorienting fragments.

Without recurring characters to latch onto, Ware opts for a potted history of his Iraq war, bolstering his own footage with newsreel excerpts and ghoulish execution videos. In August 2003, Ware filmed the aftermath of a car bombing at the Jordanian embassy, the first such attack of the Iraqi insurgency. Appalled bystanders scream at him not to film the dead while folded-over bodies are hefted on to the back of trucks. Ware became Time’s Baghdad Bureau Chief in 2004, as America's control of the occupation was becoming ever more tenuous.

Ware contacts the insurgents and soon becomes an unofficial go-between. He's shocked by the gruesome decapitation of hostages, beginning with Nicholas Berg, whose sickening execution is excerpted here, but when al-Zarqawi wants to declare himself to the world, Ware is sent the tape and publicizes it. The ethical quandaries of the journalist embedding with both sides is only alluded to briefly, and tantalizingly; this is the rare moment where more introspection from Ware might have been illuminating. Appalled by the deadly suicide bombings committed at al-Zarqawi’s behest, Ware becomes increasingly obsessed with the man behind the mayhem.

Venturing out one day to confirm that al-Zarqawi’s men had taken Haifa Street in the middle of Baghdad, Ware’s car is stopped by a man who pulls the pin on a grenade and steps out onto the road. That’s where the footage ends. Ware narrates what happened next: taken into an alleyway, about to be beheaded under one of al-Zarqawi’s black flags, then saved when his insurgent guide spoke up, threatening a turf war if Ware was killed. All this sounds nightmarish, certainly, but the film’s inability to substantiate it makes Only the Dead less a work of longform journalism than a scattershot, highly personal remembering.

Ware embeds with American soldiers in Fallujah and then in Ramadi, a city whose current hot-button status is not referenced. This is a film whose implications are implicit, but the failure of Ware and Guttentag to look explicitly to the present makes the whole thing feel oddly dated. Ware wielded his camera in an era just before YouTube, Twitter and Facebook, but the images Only the Dead contains are those we see flung up on those platforms every day, which partly explains why it feels a rather awkward fit for the big screen.

Production Companies: Wolfhound Pictures, Penance Films

Directors: Bill Guttentag, Michael Ware

Writers: Michael Ware, Justin A. Rosenthal

Producers: Michael Ware, Paddy McDonald

Associate Producer: Andrew Macdonald

Executive Producers: Phil Hunt, Andrew Johnstone, Compton Ross, Justine A. Rosenthal

Music: Michael Yezerski

Editor: Jane Moran

Sales: Transmission

No rating, 78 minutes