Just in time to again foster that sick, depressed feeling before the election, filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill complete what amounts to an Iraq war trilogy with “Section 60” — a grim hour devoted to Arlington National Cemetery’s “saddest acre,” the resting place of military personnel killed in Iraq. The approach is purposefully slow, accentuating the sense of loss by every sobbing relative. Grief is a common sight on local news, but seldom does television wallow in it quite so unflinchingly to pound home its message: that the survivors suffer most.
Having collaborated on the Emmy-winning “Baghdad ER” and “Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq,” Alpert and O’Neill go the last mile in examining the war’s cost. Letting their camera do the talking, they capture relatives of every race and religion carrying out intricate mini-rituals as they mourn lost loved ones, from “sharing” a beer at the gravesite to a young widow’s whispered intimacies to her husband’s headstone.
The filmmakers spent several months at the cemetery gaining the trust of military families featured. Even so, there’s an uncomfortable quality to how close the camera bores in on what are traditionally private moments of anguish.
That is, however, the whole point of this somber exercise, which places its emphasis less on the fallen than the acute sense of loss and emotional resiliency of those slogging on without them. After dealing with the medical personnel in Iraq (in “Baghdad”) and the memories of wounded soldiers who weathered harrowing — and often permanently life-altering — injuries (in “Alive Day Memories”), “Section 60” zooms in on the toll war deaths have on those left behind. In that sense, it’s much like HBO’s earlier “Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops From the Battlefields of Iraq,” wanting viewers to feel every shovel of dirt and every tear.
Given the Iraq war’s political aspect, “Section 60” is something of a Rorschach test, allowing the audience to imprint its own views of upon it. To those who see the war as a tragic mistake, the tragedy of that misjudgment is magnified. To supporters, it’s a reminder that even the noblest military sacrifices have profound consequences.
Under documentary kingpin Sheila Nevins, HBO has admirably kept returning to Iraq, trying to force Americans to confront the war and its human pricetag. In that context, “Section 60” is a fitting coda — a clarion call to look back, whether in anger, sympathy or merely sorrow.