“Almost Sunrise”: two Iraq war veterans walk across America to raise awareness of “moral injury” from combat

Almost Sunrise”, directed by Michael Collins, written with Eric Daniel Metzgar, aired on PBS Independent Lens and POV Monday Nov. 13.  The film depicts a journey of two Iraq war veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, on foot, across much of the country (from Milwaukee to Santa Barbara), to raise awareness of veteran PTSD and suicide, and particularly with the psychological issue of “moral injury”. That concept refers to the idea that when in combat soldiers engage in behavior that would be criminal or otherwise morally reprehensible in civilian settings.

But of course one of the points of international terrorism (especially some associated with radical Islam) is to blur or eliminate the distinction and vulnerability between civilian and military combatants.

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The men gather support, including from those who find that some veterans’ families don’t get full benefits, as after suicide.   There is a home with a family of an affected veteran with a “no media” sign on the front door.

In Colorado they reach an ashram run by an unusual Catholic priesthood.  They explore some other forms of spirituality. In Utah, they go through some of the familiar scenery.

The film was funded by Kickstarter.

The film was accompanied by two shorts.  One of them, “Voices of Resilience: Insight from Injury”, by Veterans Trek and Pacific Islander.  The film presented a support group in Hawaii, where there seemed to be no VA hospital (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding). But there followed  panel discussion about the effect of a volunteer Army which almost seemed to beg the question of returning to conscription (including women, and making the now settled question about gays [don’t ask, don’t tell as repealed in 2011] and less settled issue of trans solders morally [aggravated by Trump’s tweets] relevant). The film said we have a warrior class of a small percentage of the people waging a war on terror of unprecedented length. It is also a problem that civilian citizens act as if military and foreign policy should not be their concern.

The program also presented a very short animated film “Tom’s War” where Tom visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

Name: Almost Sunrise
Director, writer:  Michael Collins, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Released: 2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/11/13
Length:  98
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Thoughtful Robot Productions, PBS POV
Link:  official PBSofficial

(Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 12 noon EST)

“Thank You for your Service”: Iraq war veterans fare badly, but Miles Teller seems better than the crowd

Thank You for your Service”, by Jason Dean Hall, based on the book by David Finkel, seems, as a biographical war drama, set up to teach us a moral lesson about relative sacrifice, and about how badly us civilians, with no appreciation (to put it in a classroom context) of war or military life, we allow our veterans to be treated when they return from wars that we goad our politicians into starting.  And, Oh yes, we still have a backdoor draft (the 2008 film “Stop-Loss“).

And, for the second film in a role, Miles Teller, as the returned Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, steals the show.  He seems to together and charismatic to have all the symptoms and false visions that he claims.  He winds up taking care of everybody else (like my own aunt did).  The 30-year old actor is becoming America’s new male role model.

In an opening scene Adam, an IUD ordnance detection expert, leads his squad to the top of a building to take out a nest if snipers in post-Saddam Iraq.  When one of his men, Mike Emory (Scott Haze) gets shot on top of the head, Adam tries to carry him to safety with a fireman’s carry (we were tested on that in Basic Combat Training in 1968 on the PT test), but drops him, complicating his wounds. Emory partially recovers and winds up living in poverty in rural Arkansas, and Adam’s search for him becomes a major subplot.

But then there is Tausolo Aleti (Beulah Koale), a Somoan and Adam’s best friend back in Kansas, and much worse off than Adam, on the verge of being dragged into drug running. And Billy Waller (Joe Cole) comes back home to find his girl friend with baby had left him, destitute, and he winds up committing suicide in her bank workplace.

Haley Bennett shines as Adam’s loyal wife, who sees him through incidents like dropping his baby son from bed when he falls asleep with the son in his arms.

Much of the film concerns the bureaucracy of the VA and the long waiting lists men have for treatment, although from a screenwriting perspective it’s hard to make that generate “rooting interest”.

Hollywood Reporter interviews Schumann and Teller together.

Name: “Thank You for your Service”
Director, writer:  Jason Hall
Released:  2017/10/27
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/10/27, fair crowd
Length:  107
Rating:  R
Companies:  Universal, DreamWorks, Reliance
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 at 11L30 PM EDT)

“Spielberg”: The artist who refused to use his wisdom in politics

Tuesday night, Oct. 10, HBO ran Susan Lacy’s 147-minute biographical documentary “Spielberg”, about the trend-setting filmmaker Steven Spielberg,  now 70.

The documentary starts with a clip from David Lean’s 1962 classic “Lawrence of Arabia”, which I saw twice (the second time in 1989 at the AMC Uptown in DC). Spielberg says that seeing the transformation on Peter O’Toole’s character from two particularly striking scenic shots made him want to become a filkmmaker.

By age 22, he had made a 140-minute sci-fi film called “Firelight”, which is a prelude to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, although at the end of the earlier film we learn that the aliens want to turn people into zoo animals.

One of Spielberg’s most striking early successes was “Duel” (1970), between a motorist and a truck, where Spielberg introduced new techniques of camera movement to carry along the psychological transformation of his central characters. Spielberg defends his refusal to make the truck explode at the end;  the slow death of the road rage assailant is seen as much more fitting.

I would see “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” twice, the second with a friend the night of the Jan. 20, 1978 blizzard in New York City when being in Times Square was fun. Spielberg says that music was the way the aliens could show their commonality with humans.  The film used models of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (even playing with mashed potatoes to make a model of such) as a visual conduit to anticipate what would happen.

He goes on to explain “The E.T.”, which at first did not envision presenting an alien.

Another sequence, of course, was the “Jaws” movies, which Spielberg insisted be filmed in the water (with a mechanical shark).  I can remember segments from this film being shown in the upstairs lounge (above the disco) in the Gay Nineties in Minneapolis.  “Jaws” was based on the novel by Peter Benchley, which tended to make fun of its hapless characters, going so far to mention how a police officer central character had lost all the hair on his legs from the chafing of over-starched uniforms.  Does this really happen?

The Color Purple” would be a different kind of period piece, without John Williams as composer. The film is memorable with the performances of Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Spielberg held back in allowing a lesbian subplot really come forth in this 1985 film.

Schindler’s List” would become one of Spielberg’s most important historical films, with its own commemoration of the Holocaust, as a German businessman tries to shelter Jews from the Nazi raids.  Spielberg explains his use of black-and-white with the girl with the red bonnet.  I remember seeing the film at the Avalon in Washington DC.

Spielberg also discusses his 1998 film about D-Day, “Saving Private Ryan”, with Matt Damon as the private.  The film, rated R for only its battle violence, shows men reacting to seeing their own legs blown off, or their own guts hanging out as they die.  Spielberg considers it a horror movie, which children should not see.  The physical desecration of men in battle makes an existential point, that no matter how much we pretend to honor war veterans, it is the men themselves who make the personal bodily sacrifices, whereas for most of us life will go on as normal afterward.  There are no victims, only casualties.  No wonder enemies of America tend to view civilians as partially complicit combatants.

The film covers the founding of DreamWorks, which is described as an independent film studio — its first film was “Peacemaker” (1997), an early film about nuclear terrorism prescient of today (which I saw shortly after moving to Minneapolis at the Mall of America).  The studio, which has often affiliated with Paramount or Disney for final distribution, is pretty much viewed now as a major. It actually got a national security visit after 9/11.

Toward the end of the film, Spielberg makes the political point that we have to solve these big world problems of inequality and environmental destruction, or many of us will pay personally. He doesn’t want to run for president.

Name:  “Spielberg”
Director, writer:  Susan Lacy
Released: 2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  HBO, 2017/10/10
Length:  147
Rating:  NA (PG-13)
Companies:  HBO Documentary
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, October 11, 2017 at 3:45 PM EDT)

“Legion of Brothers”: CNN airs Sundance documentary of the early days of Bush’s war in Afghanistan using the Green Berets

Legion of Brothers”, directed by Greg Barker, aired on CNN Sept. 24, focuses on the very beginning of the “War on Terror” announced by President George W. Bush after 9/11.

I remember a Sunday afternoon, around Oct. 6, 2001, when Bush announced from the White House his first major steps to the American public in a televised address. The major networks allowed an airing if a very personalized address from Osama Bin Laden to follow.  There would be another such video screed on December 13, the day of my layoff.

But this film follows what is rather little known, about the efforts of a group of about ten Green Berets to start the overflow of the Taliban, as a “Direct Action Team” (and phrase “Smoke ‘em”), which this film tracks for its 79 minutes. The battle scenes are quite graphic – it’s hard to believe that combat journalists could get such footage. The narrative intersperses with scenes back home, especially in Texas.  The two main soldiers are Jason Armine and Mark Nutsch.  Some men are badly ounded, as one loses an arm.

Sebastian Junger would interview Northern Alliance leader Massoud himself before the latter’s death.  Junger would later help produce “Restrepo” and “Korengal” and write the Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Into the Valley of Death”.

What would follow, of course, was Bush’s own war in Iraq, with over 7000 deaths (combined with Afghanistan), and the whole “Stop-Loss” issue (actually a 2008 film from Paramount) with what amounted to a backdoor draft.

It’s ironic that on Sept. 9, 2001, HBO premiered “Bands of Brothers”, set in World War II, both Europe and the Pacific.

Name:  “Legion of Brothers”
Director, writer:  Greg Barker
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/9/24
Length:  79
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN Films, Gravitas, Sundance Selects
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017, at 9:30 PM EDT)

“War Machine”: a studious look at self-serving military career motivations in “Obama’s War” in Afghanistan

David Muchod’s political drama “War Machine”, based on the book by Michael Hastings, looks at the ethics of U.S. military policy and of career military officers.  Most of it takes place indoors on base in Afghanistan (filmed in Abu Dhabi), or on international “will raising” trips to Berlin and Paris.  Toward the end, it explodes into a brutal, personal battlefield scene in a village, worthy of being in “American Sniper”. Otherwise, it’s pure art.

Brad Pitt plays the lifer officer Gen. Glen McMahon, who has been tasked, around 2009, by “Obama’s War” (as Bob Woodward had called it on an NBC documentary) into pacifying and winning back some villages from the Taliban.  Unlike his other movies (like “Babel”), this time he does not look or act like Brad Pitt, the role model. Pretty soon, the movie lunges into long discussions where show that a military career like McMahon’s, starting at West Point, needs to justify its own continuation by making up objectives.  My summer in the Pentagon in 1968 after Army Basic at Fort Jackson, I used to hear this said;  and the Pentagon brass probably didn’t like to hear this from the more privileged, sheltered and well-educated draftees (the “01E20” crowd).  Maybe (besides security clearances for a latent homosexual, in the language of the time) that contributed to my own transfer to Fort Eustis.

McMahon spends a lot of time explaining “insurgency”.  In one speech, he explains the math or the “group theory” where if you kill two of ten insurgents you suddenly have twenty.  In one scene, a reporter in Germany quizzes him about all of this, whether it is indeed self-serving for his own career, Of course, “insurgency” had been a concept in Vietnam, during the time of my own service.  There is also some discussion about how 9/11 probably changed military careers a lot more than it did normal life of Americans (although I could contest that idea). The film presents the idea that American occupation on its own may aggravate religious tensions.

McMahon also courts Hamid Karzai (Ben Kingsley), unconvincingly, about “nation building.”  How self-serving.   But think about what the same idea meant in Vietnam,

With Iraq, of course, it was Obama’s exist that left the power vacuum that allowed ISIS to overrun it, so it gets complicated.

The film comes to a head with the daylight patrol in the Afghan Village.  I know someone (NG) deployed there now (really by Obama, not Trump) and I wondered if this is what he could face. It gets brutal.  One soldier gets shot in the eye and is blinded. Another (Pico Alexander or Will Poulter) is saved by his steel pot. Then one more goes it alone.

Afghanistan picture (Wiki).

Berlin picture (Wiki).  I was there in 1999.

Paris picture (Wiki), near site of 11/13/2015 attacks.

Name:  “War Machine
Director, writer:  David Muchod, Michael Hastings
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Play, 2017/7/27
Length:  122
Rating:  PG-13
Companies: Netflix, Plan B
Link: (subscription)

(Posted: Thursday, July 27, 2017 at 11:45 PM EDT)

“Dunkirk”: Christopher Nolan’s abstraction of the duty to rescue others, as civilians rescue soldiers

Christopher Nolan loves to put moviegoers into alternate worlds and make them real, and indeed he makes the chilly blue-gray war seascape of “Dunkirk” become alien.

The movie is certainly a departure from the usual focus on D-Day, showing the Dunkirk Evacuation as it unfolded in the late spring of 1940, 18 months before the US would enter WWII. The Battle of Britain would soon follow, with the air raids on London civilians.

But the film is also a morality play, about using a flotilla of volunteers and civilians who stepped up to the challenge of rescuing British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers trapped on the beach in the frar north of France.  Call this more than radical hospitality, call it radical courage, but necessary.  The volunteers were needed because some of the waters were too shallow to accept regular British Navy ships.  We’ve seen the same spirit more recently after Hurricane Harvey with the “Cajun Navy”.

Nolan keeps the dialogue sparse and utilitarian. There is a particularly disturbing sequence where one soldier (Cillian Murphy) refuses to let the private boat that seems to have rescued him back into harms way to rescue more people, leading to complications leading to death of another soldier. A able civilian seaman (Bobby Lockwood) saves all.  The boat’s older skipper (is that Tom Hardy?) says about the soldier, “He may never be himself again.”  Later he says the only thing that matters is “Hope”. (In Corinthians it is “Charity”).

The incident is notable for savage Nazi air raids on safe harbors, including a Red Cross ship which sinks..  The movie has many impressive water scenes of men escaping drowning.

The music score by Hans Zimmer makes effective use of some of the material from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

I saw this in an Imax presentation at AMC Tysons, with a presentation aspect ratio of about 2:1, it seemed.

Picture of evacuation (Wikipedia).

Name: Dunkirk
Director, writer:  Christopher Nolan
Released:  2017
Format:  Imax, variable aspect ratio, seemed to be about 2:1
When and how viewed:  Tysons Corner AMC, 2017/7/24, morning, moderate weekday audience
Length:  107
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Warner Brothers, Syncopy
Link:  official

(Posted: Monday, July 24, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT)

“City of Ghosts”: conflict journalism from Raqqa, difficult to watch

The “City of Ghosts” is Raqqa, Syria; this new film by Matthew Heineman is one of the most intense about up-close conflict ever made. It is tough to watch, even with a nearly sold-out audience, which applauded at the end. It reminded me of Kathryn Bigelow and “The Hurt Locker”.

And, specifically, the movie is about conflict journalism, a group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silenty”.

It’s pretty much a truism, that when you throw out one repressive regime with a revolution, the replacement is even more despotic. It happened to Czarist Russia, and it happened to Iran. As the film starts, we see life in this desert city on the Euphrates, from Biblical times, a low-rise city of concrete, stucco and ovals, and Muslim colors – during the Arab Spring, fomented by US social media.

The residents hardly understood what had happened as the Islamic State, ISIL, moved in and took over.

A group of journalists, including a former math teacher, started photo journals. As soon as the pressure was on, they scattered to Turkey and Germany. At least one journalist had his father and brothers targeted and executed. In Germany, police approached that journalist about putting in some kind of witness protection. Eventually, some get refugee status in Germany.

The film covers the professional production values of ISIS recruiting meda, but it doesn’t really show why young Muslim men abroad, especially in Europe, are so easily fooled. It also doesn’t show daily life in Raqqa the way the CNN special “Blindsided” by Fareed Zakaria and Jurgen Todenhofer had.

Raqqa picture (Wiki).

QA of director by the Washington Post.

Name:  “City of Ghosts
Director, writer: Matthew Heineman
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1, Arabic with subtitles below wide-scr image
When and how viewed:  Landmark E St, 2017/7/15, evening, near sell-out, small auditorium
Length:  92
Rating: NA (“R” for extreme conflict violence in a few scenes)
Companies:  Amazon Studios, IFC
Link:  official

(Picture: Mine, in Nevada, 2012).

(Posted: Sunday, July 16, 2017, at 1:45 PM).

“Nowhere to Hide”: close-up video by a male nurse on the implosion in Iraq after Obama pulled the troops out

The film “Nowhere to Hide”, directed by Zaradhasht Ahmed, presents the incredible 5-year video diary of an Iraqi male nurse, Nori Sharif, over five years in Diyala province, around the town of Jalawla, in the five years after President Obama pulled American troops from Iraq and left a power vacuum.

It seems incredible that he could even maintain this diary as battlefield conditions redeveloped around him. It’s not obvious which subgroup he belongs to (maybe Sunni), but violence between Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds first develops. But in time ISIL moves into the area and forces all the civilians, including him and his family, to flee. He and his family wind up in a refugee camp of trailers, even one housing 20 people and several families.

Eventually he returns to he hospital in Jalawla and finds it sacked and trashed.

The film shows the breathtaking desert landscapes, rather like Nevada with mountains in the far distance, and Biblical stucco villages – filled with squalor and poverty as the camera goes up close. The pain is unrelenting.

The film also shows horrific war injuries to civilians still alive, beyond verbal description.

Wiki picture of Mosul dam.

Name:  “Nowhere to Hide”
Director, writer:  Zaradhasht Ahmed
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Pop-Up, Union Market, Washington DC, 2017/7/7
Length:  88
Rating:  NA
Companies:  East Village Films
Link:  theater

(Posted: Saturday, July 8, 2017 at 11 AM EDT)

“The War Show”: from Arab spring to absolute carnage in Syria, through the eyes of a DJ

Radio talk show host and DJ Obaidah Zytoon captures the spirit of the Arab Spring in Syria in the new documentary “The War Show” by Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard (with Oqba Bouzian).  The positive beginning of the revolution is credited to social media, especially Facebook, but soon the unintended backlash (or “Blowback” (2000)) would happen.

The early part of the film is shot in super-16 (so it looks) with smaller 4:3 aspect ratio, as somewhat secular resistance against Assad springs up in cities like Homs. Assad often takes personal retribution against opponents with torture and kidnappings. In one case, a resistance fighter is denied the honor of a funeral.

As time passes, the war becomes a 3-way fight, as radical Islam enters the fight, with the gradual evolution of ISIS, setting up a capital in Raqqa. Russia enters, more or less on the side of Assad fighting “terrorists”, complicating the picture further. The film expands to the usual wide screen showing the more recent devastation as Obaidah somehow gets around to film it, despite threats to filmmakers and journalists that no one record what is happening. The life stories of a few of the more secular resistance fighters emerges, all ending in tragedy and retrospect.  There are some scenes of the venting of radical Islamist ideology when applied to civilians (especially women) on conquered territory.  There are brief scenes of boatlift escapes toward Greece.

The film was aired on PBS POV on July 3, followed by a brief QA by one of the co-producers, who emphasized that Americans do have a moral obligation to help Syrian refugees, Trump’s nationalism and isolationism notwithstanding.

Homs pictures on Wikipedia, 2011, and after civil war.

I am remined of the 1965 long short “The War Game” by Peter Watkins, of how a nuclear WWIII erupts from a sudden escalation over Vietnam. I saw it while in graduate school in 1967 at KU (before my own military service). I remember the line “I don’t want to do anything” in the devastation. Yet, as the films from Syria show, civilians are capable of a lot of resilience.  The classic BW film (belonging to Universal now) seems especially relevant given North Korea’s recent belligerent behavior, including the claim of a launch of an ICBM.

And don’t forget John Badham’s “War Games” (1983) where a kid video game fanatic almost starts WWIII, in a pre-Internet world.

Name: “The War Show”
Director, writer:  Andreas Dalsgaard
Released:  2016
Format:  1.37:1, 1.85:1
When and how viewed: PBS POV 2017/7/3
Length:  88 + QA
Rating:  NA  (R for war violence)
Companies:  October Films, PBS POV
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, July 4, 2017 at 12:30 PM EDT)

“Wonder Woman: Rise of the Warrior”: who needs (cis, virile, manly) men anymore?

Patty Jenkins gave a passionate interview on, as I recall, ABC’s “Good Morning America” to explain her new DC Comics action film, “Wonder Woman: Rise of the Warrior”, from Warner Brothers.  She wanted to show a female heroine who was the equivalent of a Christ figure (my analogy), not “just” a Virgin Mary.

Indeed, the Amazonian society shown in the early 20th Century as the film starts seems to be all female (parthogenesis, perhaps), that doesn’t need men. The future wonder woman Diana (Lilly Aspell, then Gal Gadot as an adult) grows up as a warrior.  It looks like it came right out of the Burroughs Tarzan series, with women warriors.

There is some pagan mythology here.  Diana’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) wants to protect her daughter, who is determined to become a hero worthy of a future Star Wars. The overlord god Zeus loved mankind, but Ares considered man corrupt and let man play “survival of the fittest tribe” with increasingly destructive wars.  Finally, Antilope (Robin Wright) convinces Hippolyta that daughter Diana can become the comic world equivalent of a Navy Seal. (I recall Hippolyta as a name in high school.  A high school friend once mailed me a huge post card of little tunes and signed it Hippolyta.  I wonder if the card is somewhere in the attic.)

The story starts moving when  Diana rescues a British spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) from drowning. There’s a little skin shown here, and it looks like the encounter with her  laser-emanating “lasso of truth” costs Steve his chest hair.  Steve educates her about World War I, the War to End All Wars, or The Great War.

The remainder of the plot seems to deal with a desire of the British (David Thewlis) to make an armistice with Germany to stop the war, while a villain (Elena Anaya), with a mask to cover a burn-scarred face that would scare off crows and inspire Hannibal Lecter, concocts an unprecedented deadly poison gas that dissolves everything.

So here we have alternative fact history.  Wonder Woman and Steve’s interventions keep the Allies together until the Americans enter (although nobody gets into the politics of Woodrow Wilson, the draf, and his sedition laws) and in the end, England celebrates victory, only to brace for battles to come in two more decades, needing a wonder gay man (Alan Turing) to save them with “brains over brawn” (like “The Most Dangerous Game”)

This film has been popular in the gay community the week before Capital Pride.

Generally, I’m not as interested in the alternative comic book world presenting history as the real history itself.

The symphonic poem during the closing credits by Rupert Gregson-Williams was interesting.

Name:  “Wonder World: Rise of the Warrior”
Director, writer:  Patty Jenkins
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1, 3-D, Imax
When and how viewed:  AMC Courthouse Plaza, Arlington,, 2017/6/8, late, moderate audience
Length:  141
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Warner Brothers, DC Comics
Link:  official

(Posted: Friday, June 9, 2017 at 2:45 PM)