Twenty-two movies were shown at the first-ever G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C., this weekend. The screenings included “fan favorites” like Forest Gump and The Great Raid, never-before-seen documentaries, independent narrative features, and a handful of short films. And although most of the films I saw were solidly produced, two stood out. Both The Patriot Act and Operation Homecoming offer revealing portraits of life in the combat zone, one by showing the soldier’s life from the perspective of an outsider, the other by giving eloquent voice and image to the words of the warriors themselves.
#ad#In a weekend dominated by serious and sincere tales of military experience, comedian Jeffrey Ross’s hodgepodge, delightfully crude, home-movie documentary, The Patriot Act, which documents his first trip to Iraq as a member of a USO comedy tour, is notable for its irreverence and levity. Unpolished and unpretentious, Ross’s movie rarely aspires to do much more than string together amusing, interesting bits and pieces of footage he captured on a cheap digital video camera. But in its own disheveled, bawdy way, it manages to paint a picture of the harried and hectic world of war that is both funny and affecting.
“Crude” really is the best way to describe The Patriot Act — the word captures both its dashed-together aesthetic and its sense of humor. Ross traffics in what Bob Hope called “foxhole humor” — “nothing subtle, nothing G-rated,” as Ross put it in a post-screening Q&A. Actually, there’s not much that’s PG-13 rated either; it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of the coarse, the rude, and the tasteless. And although it never approaches the profane genius of, say, South Park, those who appreciate no-limits joking will likely find it fairly funny.
Much of the film is taken up with showing Ross and other comedians performing, but the thrust of the narrative is Ross’s personal journey — meeting the troops and the locals, and, of course, riffing on whatever happens to be around. Ross, who sports a scraggly, sleepy-eyed look, as if he’s always just waking up from a nap, comes across as a reflexively vulgar class clown, a back-of-the-class spit-baller who enjoys foul-mouthed trash-talking purely for the sport of it. He almost never seems cruel or mean-spirited; there just happens to be a lot of baloney in the world, and he’s made it a point to label it as such. He moons audiences and opens a show to a hangar full of soldiers by yelling, “How you doin’ you crazy f***ing a**holes? Even the chicks here have b***s. Holy s***!” There’s barely a joke in there, but his delivery blends together his dive-bar wiseguy and incredulous city-boy personas so well that the line gets huge laughs anyway.
The film, shot on a cheap camera that Ross claims to have bought at a drug store, is equally lowbrow in its production values. There are a few graphics, occasional music, and a running voice over, but for the most part it’s just funny home movie clips strung together, like a feature-length YouTube movie. It’s not pretty, but it fits the film’s rough-and-ready, anything-goes vibe.
Beyond the frat-boy humor and expletives, the film offers a surprising and eye-opening view of what military life in the combat zone is like. By coming at it from the perspective of a jaded, spoiled, American city-dweller (as Ross tells it at the beginning of the film), Ross is able to draw a contrast between the ease and comfort of the lives led by U.S. civilians and the death’s-door hardship and tedium that face the troops at the front. “It dawned on me that I’d be seeing stuff few civilians could see.” And so we see soldiers on the battlefield — uniformly gracious, humble, and competent. They sleep in crowded tents, go on patrols in 138 degree heat, and shrug off queries about bravery under fire with lines like, “It was just a small mortar.” (Makes extra traffic on the morning commute seem like a little less of a deal, doesn’t it?) Ross doesn’t talk to troops like a journalist might; he talks to them like a regular guy getting his first real look at what their lives are like; fortunately, because of his movie, it’s a look we get too.
Like The Patriot Act, Operation Homecoming succeeds because of the vivid glimpses it offers into life on the battlefield. But where The Patriot Act ambles along, giving a roughly made outsider’s perspective, Operation Homecoming works in an almost completely opposite, but equally revealing, manner. It’s a collection of short pieces in which writings by soldiers who’ve served in Iraq are read by marquee stars and illustrated visually using animation, still photography, archival footage, and staged recreations. Slickly produced, and at times tense, somber, or heart-wrenching, the movie uses the words of those who’ve actually worn the uniforms and shot the guns to relay the wartime experience to those in the audience.
Each segment has a different tone and subject. One is funny, but most are intense or mournful, and all seem, at their core, to be about uncertainty. Just what is one supposed to do about war, or in war, or after war? What responsibilities does a soldier have to his men, his country, or even himself? The writings featured in the movie don’t shy away from the vulgarities, absurdities, or horrors of war, but there’s no attempt to politicize it, either. In fact, the whole idea of war as a political or societal event is rebelled against; for these men and women, it’s an intensely personal event. In interviews before and after the segments, the soldiers say that on the battlefield, all those lofty considerations quickly disappear. War becomes about survival and killing, about life and death, about doing time and getting home — all the while knowing that those days on the battlefield will stay forever.
Neither film is revolutionary, but both are engrossing experiences, one a gonzo home movie made by a jabber-jaw funnyman, the other a finely crafted representation of how soldiers see their lives and duties. Taken together, they provide a quick but memorable sketch of the arduous and unpredictable lives of our country’s men and women at war — and a firm reminder of the debt we owe them.
–Peter Suderman is managing editor of National Review Online.