Dir: Richard Robbins, USA, 2007, 81mins
Richard Robbins’ documentary Operation Homecoming is one of a number of recent features (both dramas and documentaries) exploring the consequences of the US invasion of Iraq. What distinguishes it from such other films as Brian De Palma’s Redacted, Paul Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah or Iraq In Fragments is that it takes the soldiers’ viewpoint and allows them to speak in their own voices.
As one of the interviewees puts it, ‘there is no reason why the little guy can’t tell a story. There is no reason why the guy at the bottom of the food chain doesn’t have as much to say as the guy at the top of the food chain.’
The narrowness of focus is both the documentary’s strength and its weakness. Robbins doesn’t editorialise. There are no Michael Moore-like diatribes against the politicians behind the war or angry denunciations of the US media or exposes of war crimes. Nor are we offered an Iraqi view of the conflict.
The filmmakers don’t ask their subjects why they volunteered. Perhaps as a result, Operation Homecoming has had a mixed reception left and right. Some have been infuriated by its failure to condemn the Bush administration. Supporters of the war have also attacked it. Meanwhile, it has elicited enthusiastic responses in unlikely quarters, for example in the Pentagon, where it was shown to Government officials last year.
The strongly American perspective may be off-putting to some international distributors. What can’t be questioned, though, is the craftsmanship and intelligence that Robbins brings to his material. The recent Oscar nomination should give extra legs to a film that has already screened on the festival circuit. Whether or not Operation Homecoming secures much theatrical play, it should certainly find an audience on the small screen, both on TV and DVD.
The film had its origins in a programme set up by the National Endowment of the Arts to encourage Iraq veterans to write about their experiences. Robbins takes ten pieces of writing from the many hundreds submitted as part of Operation Homecoming. These are read out by professional actors, Robert Duvall, Beau Bridges and Aaron Eckhart among them.
The extracts are accompanied by archive footage of the war, reconstructions and by interviews both with the Iraq veterans themselves and with celebrated authors who’ve written about previous wars. At one stage, accompanying a piece of writing by US army specialist Colby Buzzell, Robbins even uses black and white cartoon imagery.
Robbins’ real concern is less with the specifics of the Iraq conflict than with what war does to the individuals caught in its midst. The soldiers - both those who fought in Iraq and the old-timers reminiscing about the Vietnam and Korean Wars, are remarkably frank about the psychological toll they pay. Vietnam veteran Tobias Wolff suggests ‘you become a racist because you simply see them (the enemy) as a mass, a dangerous mass.’
What is striking is how closely the stories from the soldiers in Iraq resemble those told by the veterans from earlier wars. The tone of the writing is lyrical and confessional. Often, there is gallows humour to their reminiscences too. They are alert to the absurdity of their plight as well as its danger and frequent squalor.
At the same time, Robbins’ witnesses are frequently describing the most brutal events. Many testify to the utter boredom of most of their time on active service. As one suggests, war is ‘boredom punctuated by this moment when your nuts are flying up into your throat and your screaming pig squeals. One moment, you’re dying of boredom - the next you are choking on your testicles.’
Operation Homecoming makes a striking counterpart to Brian De Palma’s Redacted. De Palma (who based his screenplay on veterans’ accounts of the war he found on the web) shows US soldiers committing rape and murder. He suggests that the soldiers have utterly lost their moral bearings. By contrast, the soldiers whose writing is showcased in Robbins’ documentary are portrayed as heroic and intelligent - and making the best decisions they could in impossible circumstances.
The tone here is often reminiscent of that of legendary US war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from the Second World War in which Pyle gave a voice to ordinary GIs and, in his own folksy way, tried to show the war from their perspective. Ultimately, Robbins’ approach is both moving and informative.
It may seem perverse to use a writing project as the starting point for a film and to have actors read lengthy pieces of text. Nonetheless, the documentary is put together with such care and visual imagination that we never feel we are simply watching talking heads or a small screen doc posing as a theatrical feature. Robbins’ ultimate conclusion is grim. Broken down to a human level, war - as one interviewee puts it, is ‘quite disgusting.’
The Documentary Group, WETA-TV
Richard E. Robbins