Be it his MPAA-slamming This Film Is Not Yet Rated or Outrage, his exposé of gay politicians, Kirby Dick’s nonfiction cinema drags ugly truths out of the shadows and into the light, a modus operandi again followed with The Invisible War, his investigation-cum-rallying-cry regarding sexual assault in the military. Dick’s documentary includes interviews with numerous men and women who’ve suffered at the hands of their comrades and superiors, but wisely narrows its focus to a select few, including married mother-of-one Kori Cioca, who’s still suffering from a jaw injury given to her by a rapist while in Coast Guard, and former Naval officer Trina McDonald, whose post-rape PTSD continues to complicate her daily life and relationship to her partner and her three kids. Their stories are wrenching emblems of an epidemic that, even after 1991’s Tailhook and 1996’s Aberdeen Proving Ground scandals, allegedly remains ever-present on military bases and outposts, where soldiers—15% of whom entered the military having already attempted some form of assault, according to U.S. government study data—routinely engage in sexual abuse. And as bolstered by the experience of Michael Matthews, who was gang-raped by Air Force cohorts, it’s one that Dick argues stems not from issues of gay-straight sexuality, but from desires to exert violent domination over subordinates.
Consequently, while The Invisible War concentrates on the horrific assaults themselves, it also fixes its gaze on the heinous cover-ups perpetrated by military establishment bigwigs—a process that involves not just ignoring accusations of abuse, but blaming and censuring those who make such claims public in the first place. What’s most stunning about the anecdotes recounted by Dick’s interviewees is how alike they are, and if his film doesn’t delve quite deeply enough into the type of culture that breeds such conduct (specifically, the way in which the army projects strength as a masculine trait, thereby subconsciously disparaging female victimhood as an undesirable weakness), its spartan use of graphics and statistics conveys arguments with little grandstanding. Dick’s statistics are distressing, as with the fact that few, if any, perpetrators ever serve jail time, and even when they do, they rarely get sentences that are a year or longer, which would make them felonies and place said criminals on the National Sex Offender Registry. Similar to recent Catholic Church sex scandals, the overarching portrait that emerges is one of an insular organization dedicated to protecting some (always male) of its own, and in this instance, of doing so at the expense of defiling the idealism, commitment, and sacrifice of the very brave men and women who willingly chose to join it.