Two Films About the War

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET
  • Lucy Carrigan Lucy Carrigan is a senior communications officer at the International Rescue Committee

Two films about the war.

Two devastating accounts of the way in which the Iraq war has impacted American men and women who have gone there to fight for their country. Whether or not you support the president's grand plan to spread democracy through the Middle East, or stop them there so they won't fight us over here, you should see them both.

The first is reality, hard and true. It is James Gandolfini's Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq. "Alive Day" is the military term for the day you nearly died but didn't. It's the day you were on patrol, driving through an Iraqi neighbourhood, when an improvised explosive device blew up underneath your Humvee, and damn near killed you. Gandolfini sits down with 10 American soldiers who have fought and nearly died in Iraq and listens to their stories.

You meet the kid -- and they are mostly kids in their 20s -- who is in a vegetative state, his mother by his side, willing him to regain the facility of two-thirds of his brain. There is the former gymnast who no longer has his legs and one arm, lost when an improvised explosive device blew up beside his convoy. You hear him say, "If I lost both my hands, I really think it wouldn't have been worth it to be around. Only because to have both your legs gone and both your hands gone would be a thousand times more difficult." Then there is the soldier who describes the nightmares he has now that he is home. He dreamt one time that he was in a fight with some guy, "I was fighting him in this room, and all of a sudden I reached over and bit his throat out. I never had dreams like that before I went to Iraq. You sit up and you wake up and you go whoa, what's wrong with me?"

James Gandolfini is directly involved in this film. He is the one who does the interviews in a room, sparsely lit, one bright light ("I feel like I am being abducted" says one of the soldiers) and four people working the cameras. When a woman who has lost her arm in Iraq gets lost in thought for a moment, he asks her what she is thinking. She says that she is thinking about her future children. "I won't be able to pick up my son or daughter with two arms. I won't." She thinks she will be a terrible mother. Gandolfini's voice is soft -- Tony in a sensitive moment -- and he says, "I think you'll be a wonderful mother."

This is a film about the devastating impact of this destructive war on the young Americans who are fighting it on Bush's behalf. It's a one-hour reality check. For a soldier injured in Iraq, there are two days in a year that you will never forget. One is your birthday, the other is your Alive Day. The former gymnast, the one who lost both legs and his left arm in Iraq, notes that while so many people get excited about your "alive day," to him "it's like, okay, we sitting here celebrating the worst day of my life. Great. Let's just remind me of that every year."

The second film is Paul Haggis' In the Valley of Elah, a film based on actual events but a fiction. It tells the story of a father in search of his son who he's told has gone AWOL just two days after returning from Iraq. Tommy Lee Jones plays the father, Susan Sarandon his wife, and Charlize Theron is the cop who becomes involved in the investigation. There are all sorts of themes running through this film. There is the military father who trusts no one, polishes his shoes to a sparkling black, can't be seen in a woman's company without a shirt and doesn't have much time for fairytales. There is the son who believes he can't live up to his father's expectations unless he, too, joins the military, who makes phone videos of his time in Iraq, and who rings home, and through the scrambled sound of technology at its worst, asks his father to please, get him out of there. Then there is the cop -- a woman denigrated by her colleagues who like to think that she slept her way in to the investigative unit -- and who knows, she just might have -- and insist on giving her all of the cases involving animals, a man drowns his dog in the bath, a factory worker at the chicken factory who goes a little crazy ... and then, of course, there is the war and the war's brutal effect on the psyche of man which pervades every scene.

There are certain similarities between the reality that is Alive Day Memories and the fiction that is In the Valley of Elah. In Alive Day Memories one soldier, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who describes how he doesn't want to reach for his medication every morning when he wakes up or have to take a pill when he wants to sleep, says, "I'm a nice guy. I'm a teddy bear. I've done some mean things to kids over there because I had to." In In The Valley of Elah, phone videos and photographs shot from the war zone reveal to a father a son who, through the circumstance of war, has done worse then that. When one soldier in Gandolfini's documentary describes how he and his mate would try to make fun of everything they were doing, "you know, just trying to keep a sense of humour so we can keep our minds off being scared," I can't help but think of a scene in In the Valley of Elah which, to you or I, would seem like utmost cruelty, but to the boys on the ground, it was funny.

In the Valley of Elah is an unsettling film about the Iraq war. It is not a flawless film but it is an important one. It is a brilliantly brave statement and I, for one, can only admire Paul Haggis for making it.

Alive Day Memories is an important (and riveting) documentary about the realities that consume the 27,000 plus soldiers who have been injured so far in Iraq, and for whom, as one soldier in James Gandolfini's film puts it, "the fighting doesn't stop when you get home. In our case, it's just begun."

I finish this post as I started it. Go see them both. (Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq airs on HBO this Sunday, September 9th. In the Valley of Elah releases next Friday, September 14th.)