Review: ‘The Invisible War’

An aptly infuriating expose of sexual abuse within the U.S. military, Kirby Dick's docu "The Invisible War" calls high-ranking officials to account for turning a blind eye to a violent epidemic.

An aptly infuriating expose of sexual abuse within the U.S. military, Kirby Dick’s docu “The Invisible War” calls high-ranking officials to account for turning a blind eye to a violent epidemic. Strengthened by a wealth of stats and the brave testimonies of victimized survivors, the film — winner of an audience award at Sundance — smartly details the bureaucratic structures that allow the vast majority of perpetrators to escape justice. Dick doesn’t break new ground in stylistic terms, but his subject demands that the pic receive the widest possible exposure, certainly beyond the extensive fest play that appears guaranteed.

Among the film’s shocking statistics: The rate of sexual assault within the U.S. military is roughly double that in the civilian world; in the last decade alone, there have been hundreds of thousands of rapes in the military; and a female soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq is less likely to be killed in action than she is to be sexually assaulted. Although more than 20% of females in the military have reported assault, 80% of victims don’t report the crimes against them — and no wonder, as fewer than 10% of military sexual assault cases are prosecuted.

“The Invisible War” is greater than the sum of its stats, thanks in no small part to the participation of Kori Cioca, a former U.S. Coast Guard seaman and rape survivor who’s shown trying and failing to receive medical benefits for her post-traumatic stress and for the fractured jaw she received in the struggle against her attacker. Despite X-rays that reveal the extent of irreparable damage to her face, Cioca’s medical claims are denied.

Dick’s film culminates in the case brought by Cioca and other women who were assaulted during military service. Alleging that the defendants were stripped of due process and First Amendment rights, the case was dismissed last month through the obscene argument that rape is an occupational hazard of military service. Dick reveals that current and former servicewomen are without recourse to the criminal justice system, and that, within the military, cases are often judged by friends of the officers who committed the crimes, if not by the criminals themselves.

The film’s many talking heads include Mary Kay Hertog, who, as head of the defense department’s Sexual Assault and Prevention and Response Office, praises her woefully ineffectual predecessor, Kaye Whitley, and appears proud to continue the military’s habit of blaming the victim and protecting or even rewarding the offender. Other interviews include those with members of Congress and with Anu Bhagwati, a retired military captain who’s now the director of the Service Women’s Action Network, which provides support services to women experiencing military sexual trauma.

Network news coverage of military sexual assault has evidently appeared intermittently throughout the years, but the issue remains vastly underreported onscreen, online and in print — a situation that the docu means to change.

A particularly sober film for Dick (“This Film Is Not Yet Rated”), “The Invisible War” is exceptionally well lensed in HD, with other tech credits sharp as well. The film begins with a short survey of military recruitment ads that have targeted women; Mary J. Blige’s song “Need Someone” plays over the closing credits.

The Invisible War



A Chain Camera Pictures, Girls Club Entertainment, ITVS, Independent Lens production, in association with Rise Films, Fork Films, Canal Plus, with support of the Corp. for Public Broadcasting. (International sales: RoCo, San Francisco.) Produced by Amy Ziering, Tanner King Barklow. Executive producers, Regina Kulik Scully, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Abigail Disney, Maria Cuomo Cole, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Teddy Leifer, Sally Jo Fifer, Nicole Boxer-Keegan. Co-executive producer, Kimball Stroud. Directed, written by Kirby Dick.


Camera (color, HD), Thaddeus Waddleigh, Kirsten Johnson; editors, Doug Blush, Derek Boonstra; music, Mary J. Blige; music supervisor, Gary Calamar; sound, Tom Casetta, Aaron DelGrosso; re-recording mixer, Jeremy Grody; animation, Bil White; associate producer, Blush. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2012. Running time: 99 MIN.


Kori Cioca, Jessica Hinves, Anu Bhagwati, Elle Helmer, Hannah Sewell, Rob McDonald, Loree Sutton, Russell Strand, Stace Nelson, Russell Strand, Amy Herdy, Susan Burke, Helen Benedict, Loretta Sanchez, Jackie Speier, Susan Davis, Niki Tsongas, Anthony Kurta, Mary Kay Hertog, Kaye Whitley, Wilma Vaught.

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