A powerful argument against impetuous decisions, be they to join the military or to attack a country, “Body of War” juxtaposes the dawning political consciousness of a disabled vet with painfully extended footage from congressional debate on the 2002 resolution giving President Bush authority to invade Iraq. By documenting the difficult life of their paraplegic subject, helmers Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue succeed in personalizing some of the war’s grim statistics, but the purview of their portrait feels too limited for the pic to play widely. It should work best as tube and fest fare — and as a counter-recruitment tool.
Two days after 9/11, 22-year-old Tomas Young enlisted in the U.S. Army, hoping to rout Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Instead his unit was sent to Iraq in March 2004, where, after little more than a week, he was shot beneath the collarbone and paralyzed.
Opening with preparations for his 2005 wedding to waitress Brie Townsend, the pic graphically addresses the physical challenges of his spinal cord injury. He’s in constant pain, can’t control his temperature or bodily functions, and is highly susceptible to urinary tract infections because of skin chafing external catheters.
Tomas’ pained grimaces contrast with the demeanor of his cheerful bride-to-be as she talks through detailed solutions for erectile dysfunction depicted on a website. Later, his mother Cathy gamely changes his catheter in a scene that caused many in the Toronto audience to avert their gaze.
After the wedding, Tomas and Brie (sometimes accompanied by Cathy) travel to various antiwar demonstrations, where he shares his experiences. A meeting with similarly paralyzed Bobby Muller, leader of Veterans for America, suggests Tomas got short shrift on treatment and follow-up therapy. Tomas agrees, declaring, “The army’s goal is to get you in — afterwards they don’t so much care.”
When Brie moves out after a little more than a year of marriage, the helmers don’t devote much time to a post-mortem; she literally vanishes from the film. Tomas, meanwhile, finds new confidence with things he can do himself.
Pic’s constant cutting back to lawmakers’ speechifying gives the sense that there’s not enough of interest about the protag to carry the film. Granted, clips show how politicians from both sides of the aisle parroted administration talking points in order to sell the war, but providing a complete roll call of votes in the House of Representatives and Senate seems unnecessary. Final scene on Capital Hill, where Tomas meets West Virginia’s Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, brings two tracks of the film together more naturally and meaningfully.
Pic incorporates extensive news footage, some of which looks grainy on the bigscreen. Other tech credits are fine.