Staged and played
As a general rule, theatrical pieces fall flat when filmed. If it's not the one-camera, wide-shot view of the stage, it's an overly frenetic exercise, the camera careening from place to place on stage, from all angles and directions, making the piece look like an MTV video. There's also the pacing issue. Popular film and TV has trained viewers to expect a certain tempo built around commercials. Fortunately, New York's Downtown Community Television Collective (DCTV), a nonprofit group of filmmakers, found the right balance in capturing Tim Robbins' Embedded/Live, which premieres on the Sundance Channel Sunday.
Embedded/Live is the film version of Robbins' play, Embedded, which ran at New York's Public Theatre in March of last year. Alongside Robbins, the cast includes members of the Actors' Gang. The collective's 12 members play multiple roles as journalists, soldiers and their families, and government officials, brought together to provide a pointed commentary on the war in Iraq.
Robbins' politics and political point of view are no secret. What does surprise is Robbins uniformly thoughtful script, fueled with anger but focused on the absurdity of it all. Stylized masks (designed by Erhard Stiefel) punch up the absurdity, used on actors playing the mostly nameless government officials who are strategizing each move toward the Iraqi invasion. The look is both humorous and grotesque, as the chorus of officials speak with pompous authority about the conflict and the perfect way to market it. Another absurd (and very funny) element is a thick-necked, no-nonsense military officer prone to quoting famous lines from the American musical theatre.
As the title implies, Embedded/Live is in reference to the role of embedded journalists in the early days of the Iraq War and the military officers charged with preparing them for the front, but more importantly, keeping them in line with the marketing plan. Compliant journalists hungry for heroes and moments that will tug at the heartstrings back home are presented alongside other, less visible journalists struggling to tell the real story, the hard story that is less picture-perfect. But the larger challenge for these journalists is not to become bullied and jaded when discovering that their reputation and all they've worked for may be threatened should they not discover how to traverse that line between telling the truth and not crossing those charged with making sure the journalists are telling the right story.
When compared with the higher profile Over There, the Steven Bochco series about soldiers on the front lines of the Iraq War, Embedded/Live's teeth are sharper, coaxed by wicked humor and touches of pathos at all the right moments. Over There may be high on grit and ghastly scenes of death and destruction, but it has no POV short of providing a Valentine to the men and women in the armed services. The premise of Over There seems to be that it's dirty and scary work so we should honor and support our troops who are protecting our freedoms. While there's no shortage of respect for the men and women in the armed forces (and their families) in Embedded/Live, they are treated less as the good kids taking on a hard job than they are the game pieces at the service of unseen forces (the masked government officials). All the more horrifying when hints of the soldiers' real lives are shown in quiet exchanges between husbands and wives, parents and their child in letters, and in emotionally branded moments as when parents send their child (in this case, a daughter) off to war, and later when they reunite with her in a hospital room when she returns severely injured. Her body is damaged, but it's the psychic wounds that are the most distressing, wounds that even a mother's comforting cannot alleviate. In spite of working with fewer special effects, Embedded/Live manages more. War in Embedded/Live is not only hell; it's absurd, obscene, and less worthy of blind praise than it is hard contemplation.
Embedded/Live premieres Aug. 21 at 8pm on the Sundance Channel. Encores air on Aug. 25 and Aug. 30 at 4:30pm. New episodes of Over There air Wednesdays at 9pm on FX.