'Ready for War': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Gripping stories of vets who were not thanked for their service.

Hollywood heavyweight David Ayer and singer-songwriter Drake helped produce this Showtime documentary about military veterans deported to Mexico.

With all the controversy swirling around immigration policies and restrictions, a new Showtime documentary, Ready for War, manages to find a fresh and compelling slant on the subject. This well-crafted film, directed by Andrew Renzi, could play well in theaters as well as on the small screen, but it will stimulate discussion in any case. Renzi focuses on three military veterans who were deported because they had problems that interfered with their path to citizenship. Although the movie doesn’t answer all the questions surrounding these three veterans, it raises provocative and disturbing issues about how our government treats people who served the country more selflessly than most.

It should be noted that the problems for immigrant veterans predated the Trump administration. In fact, all three of the men profiled here were detained or deported as a result of policies put in place by previous administrations. One of the reasons that undocumented immigrants have joined the armed forces is that such service ordinarily promises a quick path to citizenship. But the three men profiled here were all convicted of crimes after they returned from their time in uniform, and that made them an easier target for deportation.

Hector Barajas came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 7 years old and lived in Compton, California. He joined the U.S. Army, but when Barajas returned home, he was convicted of discharging a firearm and was deported to Mexico in 2004, long before the 2016 election.

Miguel Perez came to Chicago when he was just 6 years old. He served two tours in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The doc follows him at an ICE detention center in Illinois as his family struggles to get him released. Instead, Perez was deported to Mexico.

The third veteran is known only as “El Vet,” and he wears a mask throughout filming. His story is one of the most chilling. After he was deported to Juarez, he got involved with the drug cartels there. In fact, one of the most intriguing arguments that the film makes is that this is an unexpected danger of deporting these men. The Mexican cartels place a premium on recruiting men with military service, so the doc suggests that we are creating a new danger by sending these veterans into harm’s way.

Ready for War is more complex than many pieces of agitprop. By acknowledging these three veterans’ criminal convictions, it is not presenting them as innocent lambs deported merely because of their Hispanic heritage. However, the main failing of the film is that it doesn’t give us quite enough detail about the crimes these men committed. We are told that Perez, for example, was convicted of a non-violent drug crime, which might lead some people to wonder if he was arrested for smoking marijuana. Actually, he was involved in cocaine trafficking, and the doc glosses over this and other similar details in order to win more sympathy for Perez and the other men.

It is probably true, as the doc implies, that their traumatic military service led these men to suffer from lingering injuries and PTSD that eventually led them into drug use. Still, their criminal activities do complicate the issues; these were not simply heroic soldiers criminalized by a racist society. Nevertheless, these men have enlisted powerful advocates, including other military veterans and Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, interviewed in the film. All of these interviewees contribute valuable perspectives, and the men themselves speak powerfully on their own behalf. Hector has launched a support center and shelter for other deported veterans living in Tijuana. If we believe in the possibility of redemption and rehabilitation, then there certainly should be a second chance for some of these deported veterans.

One of the three stories does indeed end on a positive note, whereas the other two come to sadder conclusions. It is poignant to contemplate these men’s separation from their American families, including children born in the U.S. Beyond the humanity of the veterans, Ready to War deserves credit as a strikingly photographed and edited film. A few heavyweights — including writer-director David Ayer and singer-songwriter Drake — acted as executive producers.

The U.S. government will not release the exact number of military veterans who have been deported, but the numbers are not small, and this potent movie should stimulate much more dialogue on a complicated but urgent subject.

Director: Andrew Renzi
Producers: Nick Boak, Andrew Renzi, Kerstin Emhoff, Jason Schrier, Anthony Gonzalez
Executive producers: Vinnie Malhotra, David Ayer, Chris Long, Tara Long, Drake, Adel Nur
Director of photography: Jeffrey Peterman
Editor: Ben Wolin
Supervising editor: Luis Carballar
Music: John Carey
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)

90 minutes