NEW YORK - That emphatic, empathetic baritone voice, still familiar after all these years, echoes off the walls of the penthouse apartment.
“`A gun smokes only after it’s fired,’” Phil Donahue says, his voice rising in volume until it’s booming with anger. “`The longer we wait, the more dangerous he becomes.’ And, `Inaction is worse than action.’”
Body of War
Ellen Spiro, Phil Donahue
Tomas Young, Brie Townsend, Bobby Muller
(Film Sales Company; US theatrical: 4 Apr 2008 (Limited release); 2007)
Donahue, his piercing blue eyes open wide the way they used to on his TV talk show during moments of high drama, is reciting some of the lines that one senator after another intoned during the October 2002 debate on a resolution authorizing President George W. Bush to use military force against Iraq.
That “debate” - Donahue’s sarcastic tone makes it clear he thinks it was a debate in name only - forms one-half of the story in “Body of War,” an anti-war documentary that Donahue produced and directed with filmmaker Ellen Spiro, his biggest project since MSNBC yanked his ill-fated evening talk show in early 2003.
The other half of the feature-length film tells the story of Tomas Young, a Kansas City, Mo., man who is living with the consequences of that debate. Inspired by President Bush’s vow to take action against the terrorists who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the 22-year-old Young enlisted in the Army, and, five days after arriving in Iraq in 2004, was shot through the spine. He was left paralyzed from the chest down.
“`Little Miss Sunshine’ it ain’t,” Donahue said. “This is not a take-your-girl-to-the-pictures kind of film.”
Sparing no detail, the film opens with Young struggling to pull on his pants and goes on to show how every facet of his life has been turned upside down, along with the lives of his newlywed wife and mother. Along the way, he becomes an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq.
But despite the indignities and humiliations Young endures, he holds onto a sense of humor.
At one point during the 2006 midterm election campaign, he tells a group, “I hope my fellow soldiers are beginning to understand that supporting President Bush is a little like the chickens voting for Col. Sanders.”
“Body of War” weaves these two strands together by switching between C-SPAN footage of the Senate debate and the story of Young’s convalescence, which were filmed by Spiro, a veteran documentary filmmaker who won an Emmy award for “Are the Kids Alright?” about the crisis in children’s mental health.
“He comes home from Iraq a broken person, and he comes out of that,” said Spiro, who worked without a film crew to shoot the most intimate scenes, such as a moment when Tomas’ mother has to help him urinate. Despite such material, she calls “Body of War” a “hopeful, up-from-the-ashes hero’s journey.”
The film’s two stories mirror Donahue’s long-standing interests. His pioneering talk show, which started in Dayton, Ohio, in 1967 before moving to Chicago in 1974, capitalized on his ability to identify with his audience in the studio and at home, especially when it came to personal issues, such as troubled marriages, abusive spouses and abortion. In the early days of the women’s movement, he was the archetypal “sensitive man.”
But over the show’s 29-year run - he moved the program in 1985 to New York, where it took its final bow in 1996 - he devoted considerable air time to public issues, interviewing presidential candidates and doing shows on AIDS and the savings and loan crisis.
The seeds of “Body of War” were sown when Donahue’s friend Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate and third-party presidential candidate, took him to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in 2004 to meet Young, who admired Nader for speaking out against the Iraq war. Struck by the cruel fate Young had been dealt, Donahue felt he could not, as he put it, “Pat him on the head and say, `Have a nice life.’ “
Donahue and his wife, actress Marlo Thomas, visited Young several weeks later, after he had returned to Kansas City, and from that meeting, “Body of War” gradually took shape.
“It shows not only the pain of war, but how we got there,” said Donahue, sitting in a book-lined nook in his Fifth Avenue aerie, its tall windows providing a bird’s-eye view of a verdant Central Park and the skyline of Manhattan. “You see how well-orchestrated was this effort to raise the pulse of the nation and inject an industrial dose of war fever into our bloodstream.”
Donahue, who at 72 has lost some of the bounce but none of the passion that he brought to his talk show, opposed the Iraq war from the start. He’s convinced the anti-war tone of his MSNBC talk show, which aired for a little more than six months, contributed to its demise. An NBC memo that was leaked after the cancellation noted that his show presented a “difficult public face” as the nation prepared for war.
But unlike other films or books critical of the war, “Body of War” focuses blame not on the Bush administration but on Congress, and especially the Senate. Donahue said Congress’ role has not gotten the attention it deserves, especially because that’s the branch of government that the U. S. Constitution endows with the power to declare war. It last did so in 1941, when the U.S. entered World War II.
“Our film takes the radical position that we should obey the United States Constitution,” Donahue said. “I believe if we had obeyed the Constitution, Tomas Young would be walking today.”
Donahue’s passion has not blinded him to the reality that anti-war films have not done well at the box office. And “Body of War” has had trouble finding widespread distribution since it premiered at last year’s Toronto film festival, where it was the runner-up for an audience award.
It has been featured at a number of film festivals, including South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and the film has been picked up by Landmark Theatres, the largest theater chain specializing in independent films, with showings so far in cities on the East and West Coasts.
“I’ll jump out of cakes, wherever you want; I’ll park cars; I’ll go door-to-door, whatever it takes,” Donahue said of his efforts to publicize the film, which he financed.
“I think Phil’s done all of those things,” said Andrew Herwitz, head of the Film Sales Co., which is distributing “Body of War.” “He’s at a place in his career where he doesn’t have to be doing this.”
Donahue and Herwitz say deals are in the works for the documentary to air on a cable channel and go to DVD, but their efforts are focused for now on making sure it reaches as many theater screens as possible.
If that means not talking about certain subjects, the voluble Donahue is fine with that too.
So, Mr. Donahue, whom are you supporting for president?
“I’m not saying who because I don’t want to make any more enemies,” he said. “I’m trying to promote a movie. It’s a PR thing I’m doing here. So waterboard me. At least I’m telling you the truth.”