The Body of War
TV host Phil Donahue will be present for Q&A, with EMMY-Award-Winning TV journalists, Ira Joe Fisher and Morton Dean.
Friday, Feb. 1, 7:30p.m. The Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 East Ridge Road, Ridgefield, (203) 438-5795, ridgefieldplayhouse.org
When Phil Donahue recalls the making of The Body of War, a documentary on the psychic and personal costs of the U.S. war in Iraq that will be screened by the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society on Feb. 1, he remembers how much luck was involved. By chance, in 2005, he had an opportunity to visit Walter Reed Army Medical Center and there met Tomas Young, a disabled Iraq War vet paralyzed from the chest down. Touched by his meetings with Young and his mother, Donahue happened to chat to a woman next to him on a plane flight, about how much he'd like to do a film about Young, only to be put in touch with Mobilus Media, which brought into his life his collaborator, Ellen Spiro.
Even so, making the film was a long shot, since Donahue wasn't certain how much access he and Spiro would have to Young. As it turned out, they gained the kind of intimate entry into the man's life that makes the film's focus both very real and very dramatic. "We had a warrior who turned anti-warrior," Donahue says, "and we wanted to show his life without flinching."
We see the challenges of his day-to-day life: tasks like urinating, which requires, while on a trip in a van, his mother's help; we hear his fiancée Brie speak openly about concerns in planning their wedding, and about the difficulties with their sex life; we see Young take part in marches and demonstrations where the parents of soldiers killed in the conflict reach out to him. And yet, Donahue insists, neither he nor Young wanted to make an "Oh, how sad" film about a wounded 25-year-old in a wheelchair: they wanted the film to be political. The film is intended to show not just that "War is hell," but that the particular war that Young served in was wrong and wasteful.
To that end, Donahue spent hours and hours consulting the record of the congressional hearing on the vote to support the resolution that gave President Bush the power to wage war however he saw fit. On those tapes, Senator Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, vociferously opposes the resolution. While it might be risky to include too much TV footage in a film, Donahue wanted context for Young's troubles, but without seeming to manipulate the viewer.
The CSPAN footage of the congressional debate creates a kind of Greek chorus to Young's story that effectively outrages. To see member after member read from the script provided by the administration — including John McCain, Paul Ryan, and Hillary Clinton — is to see one of the most shameful moments of recent history, with the resolution rushed through so that Congress would have to vote before the midterm elections (the election following the stolen election two years before). Without these reminders of the rigged game that spawned the invasion of Iraq, the meaning of Young's situation would be lost.
Other serendipity includes catching Young, on film, watching the White House Correspondents' Dinner that shows Bush yukking it up about his inability to find WMDs. We sympathize not only with Young's loss of control over his own body, but also his loss of faith in the president who sent him into harm's way for political reasons, not reasons of national defense.
Donahue also met Eddie Vedder at a baseball camp (Vedder is "baseball goofy," according to Donahue), and from that, after Vedder spoke at length with Young, emerged the song "No More" that features the line: "The lies we were told to get us to go were criminal, let us be straight"—expressing forcefully the view of the film.
Finally, as luck would have it, Donahue was able to film a sit-down between Young and Byrd (who died in 2010), during which the senator read the names of the "immortal 23"—senators who voted "no" against the 77 who said yes. For Donahue, that meeting of the old man and the young man, both with, as Young says, "mobility issues," as they traverse together a long hall in the Capitol building, was the final image the film needed: proud servants of their country who have a right to feel betrayed.
Young is now in a rehabilitation center in Chicago and his condition continues to deteriorate. He remains proud of the film that shows the very real cost of misplaced trust.