As powerful as anything apt to be shown on television this or any other year, this HBO documentary provides a grisly, grueling portrait of life at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad -- capturing unflinching images that should spur serious debate about what it truly means to support the troops.

As powerful as anything apt to be shown on television this or any other year, this HBO documentary provides a grisly, grueling portrait of life at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad — capturing unflinching images that should spur serious debate about what it truly means to support the troops. Producer-directors Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill have unfettered access to the carnage witnessed by the hospital staff, where, as Commander Col. Casper P. Jones III observes, “The horrors of what man can do to man are visualized right here.”

Already the subject of a New York Times op-ed piece, the message of “Baghdad ER” is sure to be politicized, which is unavoidable but shouldn’t obscure the apolitical elements of this searing production, in which soldiers and medical personnel cope with the insanity of war — whether just or not — in terms that evoke memories of “MASH’s” fictional 4077th or “Catch-22.”

Although the footage of surgery and ravaged bodies is not for the faint of heart, as with those films, part of this verite-style project hinges on the resiliency of the human spirit amid unimaginable conditions. That includes resorting to gallows humor that, as one doctor says, “helps keep us sane.” In that respect, there’s a kind of poetry in “M.D. cigar night,” where surgeons puff away on the hospital roof, cracking wise about the occasional explosions in the distance.

Granted, it’s hard to see a leg amputated and casually tossed in a garbage bag, as happens here, without questioning what’s being accomplished in Iraq relative to the hideous toll. Nor are those on the ground immune from this internal dialogue, with one medic musing, almost to no one in particular, about all the “young kids over here getting hurt.”

Chronicled over a two-month period, the soldiers, too, are shown dealing with personal grief and trauma. Having just watched a friend die and having lost part of his hand in an IED attack, one muses about why he volunteered: “All this so I could buy my family a house.”

Opponents of the war will feel a heightened sense of outrage watching “Baghdad ER,” while defenders of Bush administration policy will no doubt assail the picas the sort of material calculated to undermine U.S. resolve. HBO, after all, has not-so-subtly questioned the war’s costs before with the documentary “Last Letters Home,” which premiered on Veterans Day in 2004. (In keeping with that theme, “Baghdad ER” will repeat on Memorial Day.)

More than anything, however, the pay service has again put the major networks to shame — in this case, their news divisions, whose primetime magazines appear too preoccupied with Tom Cruise’s baby or pedophile sting operations to have much time for the conflict in Iraq.

Critics rightfully note that real-time coverage of D-Day would have proven equally damning; still, the intervening decades have transformed the world into a place where faraway video is available with a few keystrokes — assuming, that is, news outlets have the gumption to broadcast such an unsanitized view.

To paraphrase former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn theory, in breaking Iraq, the U.S. government has bought it. At the very least, advocates of the purchase should be willing to look at the shattered pieces and the impact on those left with the thankless, soul-numbing task of cleaning up the mess.

Baghdad ER

HBO, Sun. May 21, 8 P.M.

Production

Produced by Feury/Grant Entertainment in association with Downtown Community Television Center. Executive producers, Lee Grant, Sheila Nevins; supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; producers, Joseph Feury, Jon Alpert, Matthew O'Neill; line producer, Roberta Morris Purdee; directors, Alpert, O'Neill.

Crew

Editors, Patrick McMahon, Carrie Goldman; music, Nicholas Pike. Running Time: 65 MIN.
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