“Citizen Soldier,” which is being released on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray on Tuesday after a theatrical run earlier this month, is not the first movie to capture the experience of combat in Afghanistan, but it may be the most immersive.
Relying on footage from a combat photography team and soldiers themselves, the movie is a contrast to cinematic reenactments in that its moments of combat are interspersed with extended downtime. As one of the soldiers says, “War is boring until it’s punctured by these moments of heart-stopping terror.”
Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, and executive produced by Wendy Anderson, a former high ranking official at the Department of Defense, “Citizen Soldier” focuses on a group of soldiers in the Oklahoma Army National Guard’s 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, sent to a remote region of Afghanistan in 2011, the height of the surge. The the result is personal and, at moments, terrifying — particularly with the omnipresent threat of improvised explosive devices.
“It was really almost a groundbreaking style of filmmaking that we are now delivering, and it is this first-person, immersive experience from the frontlines, and what it does is it takes the audience there, to Afghanistan,” Tureaud tells Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on SiriusXM. The result is the experience of soldiers “running down that hill as bullets are flying beside the camera, and they really feel that they are part of that unit.”
The filmmakers’ company, Strong Eagle Media, in which they are also partnered with Bert Bedrosian, specializes in stories from soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They started with “The Hornet’s Nest” in 2014, which also spotlighted soldiers in Afghanistan as well as a father and son team of embedded journalists. After seeing that movie, Staff Sgt. Eran Harrill, a member of the National Guard and president of the Oklahoma City Black Chamber of Commerce, approached them about using footage he had gathered from his deployment three years earlier in Najill, Afghanistan.
Harrill “had a vision to make a movie, but didn’t know how to do it,” Tureaud says. “He had a vision to make a movie about his two fallen brothers.” The unit lost two of their own during the deployment.
The film also spotlights the service of the National Guard, whose members are not active duty members, but soldiers who are called up from 9-to-5 jobs. National Guard units have been deploying to the front lines since 9/11, a fact that Anderson says often gets overlooked. Some of the soldiers wore “helmet cams,” which is not unusual in deployments, as such footage is often used in post-mission reviews, she says.
She and Tureaud say that the soldiers have called “Citizen Soldier” and “The Hornet’s Nest” “digital medicines,” for the way they portray painful moments of their experience as well as the camaraderie and cohesiveness of their unit.
“There are 2.8 million men and women in the United States military who have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are very few folks from the moviemaking side of things who have gone to them and said, ‘Hey, tell us about your experience,'” says Anderson, who joined Strong Eagle Media last year.
“That was the thing that was most important to us. We are at the end of 15 years of conflict, and we want to make sure that these stories are being highlighted and surfaced and archived while folks remember them and have these experiences fresh in their minds,” he added.
The movie’s marketing includes serving as the entitlement sponsor of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Dover International Speedway in Dover, Del., on Oct. 2. Joe Walsh also recorded the original song, “No Man’s Land,” for its soundtrack, and a number of military officials have given it their endorsement, including Ret. Gen. John Allen and former secretaries of defense Chuck Hagel and Leon Panetta.
The filmmakers also purposely left out anything political, even any discussion of the wisdom of the surge in Afghanistan. “This about the service member, not a political party,” Anderson says.