Having produced a series of memorable documentaries devoted to veterans and the Iraq war, HBO widens that lens in its latest Veteran’s Day offering, “Wartorn: 1861-2010.” As the title suggests, the 67-minute film historically examines post-traumatic stress disorder — a response to combat that has gone by many names dating back to the Civil War — using everything from 19th-century soldiers’ letters to interviews with modern servicemen. James Gandolfini lends his celebrity to the project, which would have benefited from either greater focus or more time, but nevertheless delivers a sobering message regarding the psychological wounds war inflicts even on survivors.
“The Sopranos” star previously participated in HBO’s “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” though the more significant credits here are those of Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, who previously collaborated on that doc (along with Ellen Goosenberg Kent) as well as “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery” and “Baghdad ER.” Together, these documentaries create a compelling quilt of images about a war most Americans would seemingly prefer to ignore.
There’s no pussyfooting around what HBO is seeking to accomplish with its commitment to depicting the ugly side of warfare — namely, that while politicians speak of honoring “the troops” as an easy applause line, there’s little appetite, either among elected officials or the media, to contemplate the full extent of what they endure.
“Wartorn” illustrates a fairly simple point about the evolving understanding of the condition known as PTSD, which has been called hysteria, shell-shock and combat fatigue in previous wars. Gandolfini also engages in discussions with military personnel (“interviews” would be a misnomer), including commander of U.S. troops in Iraq Gen. Ray Odierno, who speaks candidly about the high percentage of soldiers who exhibit at least some symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
At a little over an hour, alas, the project feels a trifle rushed, and would almost certainly work better by either zeroing in on the 21st century or expanding its coverage of earlier wars (the use of journals brings to mind Ken Burns’ “The Civil War”) to augment our appreciation of the current one. The anecdote about Gen. George Patton slapping a soldier hospitalized for “nervous exhaustion,” for example, goes by so quickly it probably won’t mean much to those who haven’t seen the ’70s movie.
An especially moving segment, meanwhile, deals with Iraq veteran Billy Fraas, whose wife Marie says of his emotional instability, “Even though he wasn’t shot, he still died over there.”
To the credit of HBO documentary maven Sheila Nevins and the filmmakers, they appear determined to continue chronicling the sacrifices war entails in unflinching fashion. Then again, it’s a luxury perhaps only a pay service possesses in a nation where attention to “the troops” tends to stray as soon as the welcome-home parades end.