A new breed of war film, shot and narrated over the course of a year by three soldiers who took cameras with them into the thick of battle, Deborah Scranton’s “War Tapes” provides a uniquely eyes-on, triple-pronged look at the unfolding of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Mini-cams mounted on dashboards, gun turrets or helmets capture, with unsettling immediacy, the campaign’s sudden explosions, chaotic ambushes and 24/7 sense of uncertainty. But the pic’s deepest fascination lies in the soldiers’ complicated reactions to the war, perceived simultaneously as funny, horrific, stirring and traumatic. Limited arthouse run may snowball since film impacts all camps.
Invited to embed herself in the New Hampshire National Guard, journalist/documentarian Scranton opted instead to give cameras to willing participants of Charlie Company en route to Iraq. With the helmer and grunts keeping in touch via email and instant messaging — key sequences are uploaded — the film became an ongoing collaborative enterprise, with the core team later including producer Robert May (“The Fog of War”) and producer-editor Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”).
The soldiers chosen for camera-carrying duty fit no preconceived personality profile, each individual incorporating seemingly contradictory beliefs and values that complexly intermix in the crucible of combat.
Sgt. Steve Pink, a 24-year-old carpenter and aspiring writer, joined the National Guard to help pay for college. His highly imaginative journal, read aloud over shots of charcoalized bodies and scattered human remains, wavers tonally between the philosophical and the grotesque.
Spc. Mike Moriarty, a 35-year-old mechanic with a wife and kids, volunteered right after 9/11 and passionately hates the war experience although he’s fiercely protective of American interests.
Sgt. Zack Bazzi, a 24-year-old Lebanese-American student whose mother brought him to America to escape war, loves combat (he served in Bosnia and Kosovo) but harbors no fondness for the occupation. He decries the troops’ potentially lethal ignorance of cultural differences (demonstrating the American hand signal for “stop” that means “hello” in Iraq).
All three are united in their unswerving loyalty to the troops and the surprising cynicism of their belief that the U.S. is in Iraq for the money.
Eerie greenish nighttime sequences of riding shotgun for Halliburton convoys down flat stretches of road lit by the occasional fireball are followed by daytime vistas of Iraqi school children passing nearby the beleaguered Charlie Company compound, the soldiers themselves marveling aloud at the juxtaposition.
Helmer Scranton breaks the first-person nature of the coverage with interspersed interviews with the girlfriend, wife or mother of the camera-toting soldiers, the women detailing their struggles on the homefront and testifying to the profound changes they detect in their menfolk upon their return.
Tech credits are consonant with the high-concept “you are there” nature of the exercise, the camerawork rocked by out-of-nowhere shells, grenades and car bombs.