Let’s keep this terse: I talked with three other colleagues about Full Battle Rattle, and we all came to the same conclusion. To wit: it’s yet another documentary where filmmakers are fearless about getting great footage but clueless about the form it should take.
The last recent example I can remember is The Devil Came on Horseback, a portrait of one man’s complete disillusionment with the possibility of any meaningful change coming from grassroots political activism, but which inexplicably ended with hotline numbers for the various well-meaning organizations whose failure had just been documented. It was a film that literally denied the logical conclusion of its own narrative. Rattle starts with a similarly unimpeachable premise: in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the U.S. Army has set up a fake Iraqi town to train recruits. In “Medina Wasl” (one of thirteen fake towns in the desert), incoming soldiers have to make the peace within three weeks. If they don’t play nice, “insurgents” set off “bombs” and soldiers “die” via a lot of high-powered technology; a “big expensive laser tag” game is how one soldier describes it.
This is a great set-up for any number of reasons, the primary one being that a simulacrum like this allows for a documentary to be made about the war without retreading any known facts. On this, co-directors Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss earn full points: there’s no cheap-shot Bush footage until everything’s winding down, no invocations of torture, no safe liberal pieties. What we have instead are a group of fairly conscientious soldiers and some really fascinating “actors” (transplanted Iraqis enacting the role of civilians; hilariously, most of the jihadi/terrorist role-playing is left to American soldiers). The most entertaining of the military men is the too-perfectly-named Ben Freeman (freedom ain’t free, as he’s shortly to learn), who says things like “a little fucking meet-and-greet.” He’s basically awesome, the kind of fundamentally anti-intellectual guy De Palma set out to smear in Redacted, but whose fundamental good-heartedness is unimpeachable, giving the lie to De Palma’s caricature. Another soldier—Sgt. Paul Greene—discusses with admirable, unnerving objectivity how he hates all the Iraqi re-enactors for the first three days he’s back on the training site (he gets bad vibes flashing-back from his time stationed in the actual country), but then becomes friends with them again. There will be no scandals here, and that’s a good thing. Safe to say accusing the entire armed forces of mendacity (as De Palma basically set out to do) is a straw man that helps no one.
It’s on the re-enactor side that things get fascinating: one claims that the fairly idyllic existence in Medina Wasl feels more like home than the real, post-war Iraq. When they’re not pretending to have their children killed, the transplanted Iraqis hang out: watching soccer, chopping meat, singing songs. (It’s all too easy to mistake this for, say, a Bahman Ghobadi film.) Moss and Gerber give us time with the performer, but all too often they lapse back into the scripted, weeks-long narrative of occupation. Though they occasionally cut to the dispassionate army brass mapping out scenarios in a conference room, they prefer to shoot everything like Black Hawk Down, all sped-up action and jerky movements. The idea, I take it, is to go subjective: enter the soldier’s mindset, see how they get sucked into the scenario, and then come out with an even greater sympathy for how they’re deluded.
But—unless we want to have a clever chat invoking Baudrillard and contemptuous sighs about how the unreality of the simulation is an apt metaphor for the greater delusion that we can win the war—this is wrong. The reason: despite all the inevitable hiccups that occur when some of the insurgents are played by white dudes who have to be phonetically coached on what to yell when they commit jihad, the simulation works. It works because the soldiers—cursory language briefings and reminders to be culturally sensitive aside—fuck it all up. The weeks-long training session ends with soldiers “dying,” bombs getting set off at groundbreaking ceremonies, and the like—they don’t have to wait to go overseas to learn that something’s gone very wrong, yet they’re shipped off on this defeatist note. Impossible to know, of course, how many of the training sessions actually end this way (this is just one sample mission, and I don’t expect the army to present numbers anytime soon), but it certainly seems like a valuable lesson could be learned here about how to end uneasy relations between occupation forces and civilians. Or would, if the recruits weren’t immediately shipped off afterwards, having learned nothing except to be very, very worried.
Here’s what should have happened: Moss and Gerber should have made a nice, leisurely documentary about the Iraqi actors hanging out, punctuated with the surreal interruptions of their lives via re-enacted bloodshed. Showing that soldiers can be very deluded about what they’re getting into isn’t news. Showing the other side (and the considerably more ambivalent feelings of the actors, including both their enjoyment of their re-created home and simultaneous feelings of guilt for being complicit with the same army that presumably precipitated their departure) would have been. Instead, Moss and Gerber go for the easy irony: simulations aren’t real, but they still freak people out! I’m simplifying a bit. Rattle has slightly more insight than filler, though most of the insight comes from the courageous interviewees rather than the easy narrative format the co-directors latch onto. That they’re using the army’s formula to mount a critique is theoretically clever; in practice, though, it’s just another war movie.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.