Body of War
2008, R, 87 min. Directed by Phil Donahue, Ellen Spiro.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 14, 2008
One of the most affecting and certainly the most intimate of the cinematic arguments against the war in Iraq yet made, this documentary from former talk-show host Donahue and Austin-based filmmaker Spiro (Troop 1500) follows the post-battlefield life of Tomas Young, who took two rounds from an AK-47 (one in the knee, one just below his left collarbone) that left him a paraplegic, permanently immobilized below his chest. An impetuous Young joined the Army two days after 9/11 "to go to Afghanistan" but ended up in Iraq, where he was shot just five days into his tour of duty. Aided by his mother Cathy and his fiancée Brie Townsend, the tribulations of Pvt. Young drive home the human costs of war: This is a film about surviving the Iraq war, and as such it seeks to open not only hearts and minds but eyes as well. It helps Body of War immensely that this former soldier and current member of Iraq Veterans Against the War is a forthright, well-spoken, occasionally rueful but also remarkably levelheaded in light of his catastrophic injuries. He's able to ponder, via the Internet, what must be the single most undiscussed ailment to frequently befall wounded servicemen – erectile dysfunction brought on by paralysis and other penile-specific injuries – while simultaneously gearing up for his wedding (which opens the film) to the similarly pragmatic Brie. To its immense credit, Body of War does not shrink from showing what most people would perhaps rather not see: At one particularly graphic juncture, Cathy changes her son's external catheter in the back of the family minivan, wryly noting, as only a mother could, that "this isn't the first time I've had your pee on my hands." Cannily, Body of War edits the Youngs storyline alongside that of Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd as he inveighs, in 2002, against the run-up to the war ("My hands may tremble," notes the oratorically profound Byrd, "but my heart still throbs."). By the end of Body of War, Young has met with Vietnam-era, paraplegic veterans' activist Bobby Muller (who tells his younger comrade in no uncertain terms that the VA has given him a scandalously raw deal); seen his own kid brother off to war (much to his mother's understandable dismay); and, finally, met with the elderly but no less fiery Sen. Byrd in his Washington, D.C., offices. All of which makes for a good anti-war doc, to be sure, but an even finer – and painfully accurate – portrait of the former soldier as a young man.