On Sept. 13, 2001, 22-year-old Tomas Young joined the Army, eager to take on Al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan. His unit went to Iraq in March 2004 instead.
Five days into his tour of duty, he was shot through the spinal cord and paralyzed below the chest for life. He's in constant pain, can't control his bodily functions or regulate his temperature, and his catheters give him recurrent urinary tract infections. Putting on clothes is a struggle, sitting up straight in his wheelchair is a challenge and his fraying temper leads him to fight with his supportive wife and mother.
Half of "Body of War" -- its emotional focus -- is an intimate portrait of Young through his difficult adjustment to civilian life in a wheelchair. The rest -- the political core -- is a salute to Sen. Robert Byrd, the loudest voice of opposition to the prowar brigade during the runup to the invasion. The youthful soldier and aged politician make an unlikely but affecting pair, one representing the bodies sent onto the battlefield, the other standing for the deliberative body of the Senate.
Produced and directed by documentary filmmaker Ellen Spiro and former talk show host Phil Donahue, "Body of War" is an unabashed protest movie. It starts on a note of touching optimism, as Young wheels up the aisle at his wedding to his charming onetime nurse, Brie. Young's kid brother Nathan attends in his dress uniform; he's about to go off to Iraq himself. His antiwar mother, Cathy, and prowar father, Mike, wear encouraging grins.
Over the course of the film, Young both grows and fails. He becomes an eloquent speaker for Iraq Veterans Against the War, appearing alongside antiwar activists Cindy Sheehan and Martin Sheen. At the same time, his physical and psychological scars gradually undermine his marriage. The war's wounds strike home in the most intimate and bitter ways.
The film meanders as it makes its unsubtle but impassioned critique of the Bush administration and its allies. To the tune of acoustic protest songs by Eddie Vedder and Bright Eyes, the film's censure broadens to include Fox News, the administration's opposition to stem cell research and the bungling response to Hurricane Katrina.
But after those digressions, the focus returns to Washington during the 2002 deliberations to grant President Bush authority to invade Iraq. Sens. Fred Thompson, Bill Frist and Hillary Clinton talk about alleged connections between Al-Qaida and Iraq, and a parade of representatives parrot the threat of a Saddam-triggered "mushroom cloud" over the United States. In retrospect, the chorus of discredited talking points has the ring of black comedy.
As the votes are counted and the gavel pounds with echo effects like the hammer of doom, however, the cumulative weight of the film's heavy-handed advocacy undercuts its legitimate arguments. The overreaching Spiro and Donahue are not content to persuade viewers; they insist on convincing us.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186