Nobody has more unflinchingly documented the Iraq war’s carnage than HBO, which again enlists Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill — producers of the gut-wrenching “Baghdad ER” — as part of this spare, thoroughly depressing but equally essential hour. James Gandolfini admirably squeezes his considerable self into the background, allowing 10 soldiers — with injuries ranging from lost limbs and blindness to post-traumatic stress disorder — to share their experiences. “The Sopranos” star is no journalist, but his empathy shows, the only quibble being that the material might have been better served by expanding the length to further develop the stories.
Gandolfini met with the wounded soldiers in a soundstage, where, against a black backdrop, they speak candidly about brushes with death given the Orwellian designation “Alive Day” because they survived the ordeal. In addition to these testimonials, some of those moments are visualized using insurgent-shot video, brutally capturing the jolting impact of IED bombings.
The extent of the damage is, of course, heartbreaking, and the producers magnify the sense of loss through understated use of video snippets — a legless veteran, for example, shown performing a gymnastics routine in high school before his body was ravaged.
A diverse group age 21 to 41, the soldiers acquit themselves extremely well — generally discussing what happened and what lies ahead without bitterness or self-pity, but with a level of frankness seldom witnessed in the sanitized realm of television news. Dawn Halfaker, a 27-year-old army first lieutenant who had her right arm and shoulder amputated, soberly mentions a “distinct moment” during her recovery, when “I realized what I was: I was an amputee from the war.”
Inevitably, war opponents will find ample ammunition here to feed their hostility toward the Bush administration, particularly when the soldiers discuss how ill-equipped their Humvees were to endure combat. By contrast, the war’s advocates and defenders aren’t entirely wrong when they complain, as is their habit, that such deflating material weakens the public’s resolve.
The overarching picture that emerges, however, is ultimately much less related to policy than the personal — a real version of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” multiplied several times over, for those coming home from this war irrevocably changed. Perhaps that’s why boiling down the individual stories to roughly five minutes each inevitably feels rushed, though given the arbitrariness of letting 10 faces stand in for thousands of casualties, doubling or tripling the allotted time would hardly eliminate such concerns.
Even when the tales offer uplifting epilogues — such as a soldier who married after returning home, despite his fears that no one would have him now — the images are not pleasant. Yet seeing an unexpurgated view what these young people have sacrificed, whatever one’s politics, resisting the temptation to look away hardly seems like too much to ask.