Without letting viewers in on its strategy, “Voices in Wartime” delivers a collective cry against war through poetry. Filmmaking brothers Rick and Jonathan King show courage by avoiding neutrality when they easily could have billed their wide-ranging docu as a mildly educational work designed to offend no one. A history of verse is laid alongside that of warfare, and the ways in which they are braided together proves fascinating. Distrib Cinema Libre (“Outfoxed,” “Soldier’s Pay”) plans a March rollout in prime blue state cities, while subsequent vid play will draw a wider crowd.
Pic’s mainspring is a poetic perspective on war, but it isn’t always provided by poets. Early on, for instance, physician Jonathan Shay suggests soldiers in battle are not so much brothers as they are mothers to one another during combat duress. War correspondent Chris Hedges vividly describes the inner battle against fear that rages when one is pinned down during combat.
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“Voices” emerges as more than a string of fine, thought-provoking ideas. Docu links poetic commentary on war with the recent founding of the national organization Poets Against the War, which was formed in response to an invitation by Laura Bush for poets to honor Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Poet Sam Hamill spearheaded the protest against what was viewed as the Bush White House deceptively trying to de-politicize great American poets who were profoundly anti-war.
Docu links the current carnage in Iraq (best expressed by Iraqi poets) and a superb account of how British WWI soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon met ailing fellow vet Wilfred Owen during a mid-war hospital stay and helped him flower into possibly the greatest English verse artist on war. Pic’s generous section devoted to Owen’s astonishing language (touchingly shown on screen in scribbled first drafts) could trigger a revival of interest in one of the last century’s most sublime versemakers.
A lovely bonus is pic’s emphasis on poetry’s populist streak — how everyday folk can burst into verse, such as young Alexandra Sanyal or Pamela Talene Hale, who issued her first poem for a string of national readings sponsored by Poets Against the War.
Vid-lensed docu gracefully moves through what could have been difficult transitions, with aid from editor Daniel Loewenthal. A cadre of thesp and pro voices (including Garrison Keillor as Whitman) gives the poems a musical air.