Warner Bros.’ decision not to distribute this documentary as part of a DVD re-release of David O. Russell’s “Three Kings” made it the latest cause celebre of the political season, with the mini-film perhaps appropriately landing on the Independent Film Channel. Russell is right when he states in a letter to critics that the production is “nothing fancy,” but the press notes are disingenuous in calling this “not a partisan film.” By any objective measure, the clear intent is to expose the plight of soldiers due to incompetence or indifference by superiors overseeing the war in Iraq.
“Three Kings” certainly proved prescient in its exploration of Iraq in the wake of the Gulf War, but Russell’s documentary (with Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar) has more than a cast reunion on its mind. Through interviews with military personnel, psychologists and others, he paints a sympathetic portrait of soldiers who enlisted with little thought they would be asked to fight and kill, while “private contractors” (or as one former military source dubs them, “mercenaries”) garner significantly higher wages for the same work.
As with HBO’s upcoming docu “Last Letters Home,” what Russell and his collaborators accomplish most effectively is putting faces on the “soldiers” that politicians sound so desperate to support. It is, as Russell says, a story that receives little play, particularly in the hubbub heading toward the election.
In an eerie echo of “Three Kings,” one of those soldiers, Matt Novak, discusses his dishonorable discharge for allegedly pocketing Iraqi loot, when the brief interviews suggest that Novak might have been one of the few who wasn’t digging in with both hands. Still, he does acknowledge that soldiers helped themselves (with approval from above) to Iraqi goods, calling it “a free for all. Whatever we needed, we took.”
The most sober voice here belongs to Major General J. Michael Myatt, an opponent of the war in theory as well as its prosecution, such as disbanding the Iraqi army. And while there are balancing contributions from Rep. David Dreier (R-Cal.) and an exiled Iraqi who challenges anyone to live “under Saddam rule for one month,” in legal terms the preponderance of the evidence proves overwhelmingly unflattering to the Bush administration.
Nothing wrong with that, though that dynamic makes it more understandable why Warner Bros. didn’t want to get drawn into a political skirmish in regard to the DVD, having the decency (as Russell observes in the notes) to hand over the finished product and let him broker another deal. Of course, a pre-election showing on IFC hardly seems likely to influence many hearts and minds, but given the polarized state of the electorate it’s difficult to see “Soldiers Pay” having that effect in any venue.