Documentary gives voice to soldiers' war experiences
Even in the most controversial wars, occasionally a government does something that just about everyone can get behind. Operation Homecoming is one such initiative.
Conceived by the National Endowment for the Arts (an independent federal agency), this little-known project has succeeded in gathering writings from American soldiers and families caught up in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- raw outpourings that are both intensely personal and universally important in telling the full story of war. It's a remarkably visionary and tolerant endeavor for these narrow-minded times, and from its thousands of collected expressions (partly published in an anthology by Random House) comes "Operation Homecoming" the documentary, a blunt, revealing film directed by Richard E. Robbins .
Focusing on the writings of less than a dozen Iraq war veterans, the movie features interviews with the authors, actor-voiced readings of their words (Robert Duvall and Beau Bridges are among those contributing voiceovers), and a broad mix of stylish visual interpretations incorporating everything from still photography and archival news footage to animated comic-bookish drawings. The director also enlists commentary from some famous literary figures, including Tobias Wolff, Anthony Swofford, Paul Fussell (a former professor of this reviewer), and the ultra-quotable Tim O'Brien.
Some elements are more successful than others, partially because at the film's center is an eclectic and uneven pile of words derived from letters, poems, journal entries, essays, satirical musings, and works of fiction. If you want thoroughly polished dramatic artistry, see Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima." Robbins's handling of the written record in "Operation Homecoming," on the other hand, ranges from eloquent to overbearing. He's a TV news guy, best known for past work on special reports with Peter Jennings, and his default position shows in every blurred drive-by image or clichéd close-up.
That said, "Operation Homecoming" (official subtitle: "Writing the Wartime Experience") still hits far more marks than it misses. And no work has brought viewers deeper inside the psychology of war.
"War is not this glorious thing that's made in a movie on TV," explains Air Force Reserve Captain Ed Hrivnak, whose scribblings record the details of medivac missions that will turn your stomach and move you to tears. "When you break it down at a human level, [war is] actually quite disgusting."
On that, at minimum, every voice in this film seems eager to agree. And they state their cases with candor that leaves no room for politics or image-making, whether chronicling fear under fire, guilt over casualties, the final journey of a fallen comrade's body, or just the tedium of daily life around camp. These people know the value of free expression, even in wartime, even in the military, even in Bush-led America.
"I may not be a very good soldier," Air Force Sergeant/author Edward Parker Gyokeres tells the camera, "but I may be a very good witness."
"Operation Homecoming" is very clear about which duty is more important.