“It looks like a scene out of Apocalypse Now,” opines one of the Marines surveying the chaos of an Iraqi battlefield in Severe Clear, Kristian Fraga’s wartime found footage compendium, but given the relentless turbulence of the amateur video footage, the battles we see resemble less Coppola’s clear-eyed surrealism and more the incoherence-skirting camera jostles of contemporary action directing—pushed into the realms of near abstraction. In one combat sequence, as the soundtrack fills with the measured racket of machine gun fire, the camera registers nothing but an indecipherable blur of rapidly alternating colors and shapes. When it finally comes to rest, the sudden return to visual coherence reveals an astonishing mass of dead bodies lain out in the street.
But such is the confusion of war—at least as seen through the filter of First Lieutenant Mike Scotti’s mini-DV camera. Inspired by the 9/11 death of a high school sweetheart, Scotti voluntary extended his terms of service in late 2002, becoming one of the first troops to reach the front lines of Iraq, while driven by what he viewed as the misemphasis of the national media’s war coverage, he decided to document every possible moment of his experiences for the evidentiary record. Scotti’s footage, as well as that of several other Marines, forms the essential content of the film (organized by Fraga and contextualized with the subject’s narration, excerpts from his journal, and snippets from appropriate newscasts), but it’s not all heat-of-the-battle madness. Arriving at the Iraqi/Kuwaiti border, the men engage in a round of fratty antics, while much of the subsequent material hints at the mental stress and monotony of the operation—the uncertainty of encountering seemingly helpful locals who may just as well be enemies, the long stretches of inactivity, the slow push toward Baghdad.
Holding the film together is Scotti’s running monologue, reflecting on the purpose of the conflict. At first he seems frustratingly blinkered, holding to the old platitudes about freedom, naively pointing to his dead girl’s picture as the reason he’s in Iraq—as if Saddam had anything to do with 9/11. But eventually, flickers of consciousness emerge, and we realize that only by avoiding reflection and sticking to a strict us vs. them mentality is it even possible to exist in such a state of constant absurdity. As Scotti puts it, “You gotta keep it simple out here.” Only later—Baghdad finally captured, a return to the states imminent—is there time to consider whether the Iraqis actually wanted them there in the first place.
If this personal reckoning represents the moral heart of the project, however, it’s notable that it’s accomplished almost entirely through verbal narration. In fact, as privileged as the video footage that Scotti filmed may be, there’s the sense that it’s not a whole sight more revealing than the news broadcasts to which it’s designed to serve as a corrective. Fraga shapes the material as best she can (occasionally straining too hard, as when she unnecessarily affixes a Blind Melon tune to footage of urban ops), but she can only work with what she’s got. A few doozies aside (a close-up of the brain of a young girl killed by Marines when her father failed to stop at a check point, a walk through Saddam’s deserted palace), Severe Clear‘s most notable moments nearly all come through in post-dub audio, the film’s visual component serving principally to emphasize the essential chaos of armed conflict. Still, given the smooth narrative preferred by the official channels, there’s no shortage of virtue in that.