Body of War is a gut-wrenching documentary experience, though like any effective polemic, it is almost as canny as it is facile in construction. Over three years, directors Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro recorded the life of an American solider who was made into a cripple by George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, capturing how Thomas Young’s injuries affected his family and romance with his new wife, as well as his sense of human worth. This humane project probably bites off more than it’s able to fully chew in 87 minutes, but it chews well enough: In addition to documenting Thomas’s injuries and how their extent was acerbated by military negligence, it catches startling glimpses of people within his family caught in ideological tug of wars that miraculously don’t get in the way of their love for one another. Thomas’s mother is a particularly poignant presence, ushering one son toward war with mixed blessings as she helps another to extract the excess urine from his bladder in a scene that isn’t played for cheap exploitation but as a joyous reminder of the primal connection between mother and child. Only the media’s Axis of Evil—O’Reilly, Limbaugh and Hannity (name-checked by Thomas’s mother during an argument with her conservative husband)—would scoff at the way Thomas, prone to dizziness and no longer able to control his body temperature, must drop his upper body forward in order regain his new center of gravity, or how he brings comfort to mothers who’ve lost sons to the Iraq War, but the filmmakers take aim at more than just our nation’s most visible and risible right-wing representatives. Folded into the story of Thomas’s physical trials and tribulations and activist uprising—from his involvement in Cindy Sheehan’s antiwar crusade to a meeting with the great Robert Byrd of West Virginia—are snippets from the speeches our country’s senators, Democrats and Republicans alike, gave when casting their votes in favor of or against the 2002 Iraq Resolution. The cutting back and forth between Thomas’s life journey and the floor of the Senate gives the film a rhythmic, almost chant-link tenor, and though you could say the filmmakers are aiming low by hanging out to dry those in our legislative branch who gave Bush the power to go to war under false pretense, some of us did know better, so you can’t say that Donahue and Shapiro’s contempt feels undeserved.
Body of War isn't the most attractive Iraq War-related documentary out there, but the transfer here is faithful, dialogue is audible and, for better or worse, Eddie Vedder's mournful warble comes through loud and clear.
At over half an hour, the DVD's longest extra is also its most interesting: "Bill Moyers Journal: Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro" is Moyers's in-depth conversation with the co-directors from last March in which the talk-show pioneer reveals his passion for the topic of the Iraq War's wounded veterans and why he decided to focus on subject Tomas Young. Spiro discusses the power of the documentary medium as a vehicle for helping people find their voices, though it becomes clear at one point during the interview that the film itself skips one of the most important aspects of Young's story: how he weaned himself off morphine and empowered himself following his separation from his wife. Less vital is Donahue's 2002 interview with the "Conscience of the Senate" Robert Byrd (Donahue is a bit boisterous in his approach and we see Byrd at his best in the film) and 21 minutes of CSPAN coverage of the debate leading up to the Iraq War resolution that transferred Congress's power to wage war to George W. Bush. Other extras include several largely unnecessary deleted scenes (the exception being one capturing a meeting of war vets discussing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a music video for Vedder's "No More," filmmaker bios, a theatrical trailer and a list of 10 ways to take action against the war.
Few of the extras are new or exclusive to this DVD but it's still an impressive slate.