You Gotta Have the Visual
Body of War
Ellen Spiro, Phil Donahue
Tomas Young, Brie Townsend, Bobby Muller
(Film Sales Company)
US theatrical: 4 Apr 2008 (Limited release)
“You go to a parade, you got to a demo,” says Bobby Muller, “Standard routine: you put the gimps on the front. You gotta have the visual.” He knows what he’s talking about. Muller, founder of Vietnam Veterans of America, has been in a wheelchair since April 1969, when a bullet severed his spinal cord in Vietnam. In Body of War, Muller is talking to Tomas Young, an Army enlistee from Kansas City, Missouri, also in a wheelchair after he was shot in Iraq. Their meeting is poignant, enlightening, and a little rowdy, powered by Muller’s terrific sense of humor and deep understanding of what it means to both love a nation and protest its policies.
Muller’s appearance in this documentary, produced and directed by Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue, is galvanizing. Not only is he frank and funny, but he is also angry, practical-minded, and inspiring, a combination that’s difficult to achieve and invaluable, especially for Young, just beginning to imagine a future shaped by pain, limits, and frustration. Muller embodies and articulates a way to manage that future. Not only does he wonder about Young’s treatment (he spent just three months in the hospital after his injury in 2004, compared to a year for Muller, a difference that has to do with advancing technologies and treatments, but also has to do with money and the general lack of planning by the Bush administration), but he also invites Young to work with him, to channel his rage and grief through the current anti-war movement.
As the emotional focus of Body of War, Young surely provides a striking visual. Introduced as he pulls on his pants in his bedroom (a scene that recalls a similar opening for Murderball), Young tells a familiar story concerning his decision to enlist. “When I made the phone call on September 13,” he says, “It was because I saw the pictures of [George Bush] standing on top of the pile, saying we were gonna smoke these evildoers out that did this to us, and we were gonna find ‘em in their caves.” But, Young goes on, when he arrived in Iraq, “All I saw were women and children running away from gunfire, before I took a bullet myself.” That was in 2004. The film follows his struggle with the consequences of his choices, using his example to make a broader point. As Young puts it, “If my life can teach people anything, it’s do not make impetuous decisions, decisions on whether to invade a country or enlist ion the military or anything. Don’t rush into the future.”
Young’s struggle is shared by his mother Cathy and his fiancée Brie, who not only care for him but also accompany him to demonstrations. Cathy is caught up in particular difficult dilemmas, as her middle son Nathan is also “in the service” and about to deploy to Iraq, and her husband Mike is, in her words, “very right-wing, a very conservative Republican dittohead.” Their disagreements over Cindy Sherman (during the film, her protest in Crawford is on TV) form a kind of introduction to Tomas’ increasing sense of purpose: by the end of the film, he has joined Sherman, Martin Sheen, and other prominent anti-war activists in their efforts to bring the war to an end.
At the same time, Body of War focuses on how the war began, as it repeatedly cuts back to the Congressional debate over the 2002 Iraq war resolution. As senators and representatives make speeches about what’s at stake, the film splices in clips from a, October 7 speech by President Bush, in which he “outlines” the threat posed by Iraq, with references to biological weapons, Saddam Hussein’s links to terrorist groups, and efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. Bush’s words and administration “talking points” are repeated in both chambers. While Brie researches “bowel problems” on the internet, John McCain pronounces, “The longer we wait, the more dangerous [Saddam Hussein] becomes.” While Young appears with Sheehan in Texas, trying to stay cool with ice because his body no longer regulates its own temperature, Senators Fred Thompson, Bill Frist, Hillary Clinton talk about the connections between al-Qaeda and Iraq. And as Brie and Tomas discusses the complications of achieving erections (with a pump or a “magic medicine” injection), Bush and a series of representatives intone the threat of the “mushroom cloud.”
If the film is unsubtle, it is impassioned. Robert Byrd argues fervidly against the resolution, quoting Hermann Göring on how easy it is to bring “the people to the bidding of their leaders.” Byrd reads, “All you have to do is tell them they’re being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” Byrd’s outrage—echoed by Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey, and Barbara Boxer, among others—was, of course, rejected by votes in both chambers favored Bush’s “bidding.”
Running parallel to all the pontificating, Tomas’ complicated story is full of more affecting contradictions and difficulties. As he and Cathy watch Nathan leave for the Middle East, they put on supportive faces (though he acknowledges to Spiro’s camera that he’s worried, Tomas says, “I couldn’t let him see that, because that was the time for him to see his mom cry and be scared”). After he’s gone, Cathy shows how she checks icasualties.org every morning at work, noting official efforts to repress images of the war, including coffins coming home or other reminders of its psychic and physical tolls on veterans and their families. As Young watches the infamous White House Correspondents dinner where Bush showed the “comedic” slides of his search for WMDs in the Oval Office, his mother observes, “They’re so insulated, they don’t want to know about people like Tomas.”
In making “people like Tomas” visible, Body of War—and the promotional tour that has included mainstream and independent news appearances by Tomas, Cathy, Spiro and Donahue—makes its most effective argument. While the film shows that the decision to go to war five years ago was rash and unreasoned, its more pressing point has to do with the future. Now “on the front” every day of his life, Young decides to put away a “machine-autographed certificate of appreciation from our president.” In doing so, he underlines the different effects of displaying truths and untruths: “I don’t need to come out here to my living room and see a flag and a Purple Heart,” he says, “to know what situation I’m in.”
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