Director John Laurence is a veteran, old-school news journalist who reported from Vietnam in 1970 and was embedded with the 101st Airborne in 2003. His new documentary, I Am An American Solider: One Year In Iraq With The 101st Airborne, would appear to be this year's War Tapes which debuted at Tribeca last year. In that riveting film, director Deborah Scranton gave soldiers digital video cameras to document their experiences in Iraq.
Laurence's film takes a different approach but is no less searing as the war in Iraq drags into its fifth year. Speaking at a press conference, the director said he didn't set out to make a political film, but rather a film that would uncover some truths about the war. Namely: "That they're [the soldiers] aren't there for their country...they're there to save one each other [from dying]" and two: "There's no master plan [at least up until a month ago]."
Laurence said he didn't set out to make a pro- or anti-war film: "We set out to make a film from the soldiers' point of view that was not going to be political." His film follows the experiences of a group of soldiers in the elite 101st as they prepare for their deployments, serve and return home--18 members of the group are killed.
The film is full of raw moments and the viewer feels helpless as one emotional scene after another unfolds--a soldier who lost his leg trying to weigh whether it was worth it, "it's just a leg," suggesting that at least it's not one of his arms; an army medic weeping after being unable to save an Iraqi child struck down by a car bomb; the poignancy of a commander's parting words as he leaves his tour in Iraq; and family members' emotions running over at a memorial service.
Laurence skirts a controversial issue in the film: The reprimand of Col. Michael Steele for his handling of an incident in which two soldiers pleaded guilty to murdering three Iraqi detainees and two others pleaded guilty to lesser charges. The director said he didn't address the issue because he wasn't present.
While Laurence said he didn't make an anti-war movie, he said that the process of making the film showed him that the soldiers "go to war expecting to make a difference, to serve their country, to kill a lot of insurgents, to help win the war, advance the cause," but they end up "after a year realizing that's not going to happen."
In contrast to high-profile celebrity war correspondents and bloggers in the field, Laurence is understated in his approach: "We just wanted to document their lives. We didn't set out to make an anti-war film or a pro-war film, just an interesting film."
He said the most profound moment in the film comes from Sgt. Luke Murphy, who said: "We're training for a guerilla war and all our tactics are conventional."
Laurence and his crew followed soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division for 14 months, observing their preparations in the U.S., their experiences in Iraq and then their return home.
Laurence and his team crafted an emotionally riveting, exquisitely shot film made even more so by it's soundtrack; the filmmakers asked the soldiers in the film to submit their ideas for music, some 200 songs, winnowed down to a dozen or so including, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," Bruce Springsteen's "Devils and Dust" and his haunting rendition of "Mrs. McGrath": "No, I wasn't drunk and I wasn't blind. When I left my two fine legs behind. A big cannon ball on the fifth of May/ Tore my two fine legs from the knees away."
Documentaries about the long-running war in Iraq, now dubbed a "surge," are generally not such great prospects for distribution, so Laurence isn't placing all his bets on theatrical distribution for his first feature film. Instead he's in discussions with cable and broadcast networks to create a series of five one-hour programs based on the film and other footage.