A new year, a new boatload of political docs. So you’d be forgiven for confusing Fighting for Life for another of-the-moment Iraq movie. Though it superficially deals with how military doctors work during a long and unpopular war, Terry Sanders’s film more closely disentangles a specialized establishment in its own right. The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, a government academy like West Point, forms the center of Sanders’s story, where he starts with medical students dissecting cadavers and moves onto physicians amputating soldiers’ limbs. Being a USU graduate means wearing two different uniforms, and it’s at this intersection of social roles that Fighting for Life becomes most insightful: “You won’t be smarter, but you will be transformed,” an instructor says when students ceremoniously wear white robes to pledge membership in the medical industry, but in the Middle East they’ll also be wearing armored gear.
Because the movie comes without political pretenses, Sanders doesn’t have to shy away from either the unique challenge of military doctors or the carnage of the war itself, which is unflinchingly displayed during examinations at various treatment centers. Interview subjects repeatedly cry on camera, an empathy that belies the stereotypical image of robotized surgeons and complicates viewers’ relationship with the doctors on-screen—caregivers who take their own hefty emotional tolls. Though Sanders doesn’t actively comment on the war, its failures can be felt everywhere, from an injured soldier who pleads for death on his hospital bed to the 48-hour flight wounded patients must take from the battlefield to the centralized, standardized care at outfitted outposts hundreds of miles away. Fighting for Life isn’t a beautiful movie—with its thematic soundtrack reminiscent of cheap local news production—but at times it’s fascinating to watch, not least of all because it helps to clarify one area of an increasingly loaded subject.