Frontline’s “A Company of Soldiers” follows Dog Company, a group of soldiers from the 1-8 Cavalry, during November 2004. The PBS team worked as embedded reporters, free to film almost anything during their month in Iraq (the Pentagon screening focused on “secuirty clearance” issues only). The filmmakers chose to concentrate primaily on “the Misfits,” a nine-member combat group thrown together from many different parts of Dog Company. This documentary focus on the experiences of a small group of soldiers inevitably led to comparisons with Michael Tucker’s Gunner Palace, with both films raising, both consciously and unconsciously, questions about the representations of war.
Having watched Tucker’s film just over a week ago, I was struck by the differences between the two films. Gunner Palace offered a far more personalized account of the war, particularly through the heavier use of subjective camera and first-person voice-over narration. Throughout the film, I was consistently aware of Tucker’s presence as a filmmaker. By contrast, the Frontline voice-over approach tended towards sober objectivity, with the result that Company seemed to view the soldiers at a safe distance. While we do witness an extended segment where the soldiers mourn the death of one of their comrades, I never got the sense that the documentary was aware of its role in shaping what we were watching. Instead, we get highly aestheticized back-lit images of soldiers conducting combat operations, with an undistinguished soundtrack that conveyed little more than the sobriety of the subject matter.
I also found the interviews in Soldiers far more frustrating than those in Gunner Palace. Most of the interviewees were career military men (I didn’t see a single woman in the entire broadcast), trained in the PR speak designed to present the war, and the men and women who serve, in the best possible light. Unlike the more critical soldiers in Gunner Palace, the Misfits never speak negatively about U.S. action in Iraq; in fact they are shown at one point complaining about protestors (one oddly suggests that if the protestors don’t like the war, they ought to enlist in the military).
My other major complaint about the film is the almost complete failure to convey anything resembling the perspective of the Iraqi people whose lives have been completely disrupted (and often destroyed) by the war. Company comes close in a few places. One Iraqi hesitates to help out Dog Company because he fears being labelled a spy. A market built by Dog Company in November doesn’t open because a sheik demands an excessive fee to rent the booths that are supposed to be free. But for the most part, the Iraqi people are either left invisible or remain almost entirely unknowable. The film conslcudes with a very brief critique of the decision to go to war in Iraq, noting that while the soldiers are all competent and careful, the effects of the war on Iraq have been devastating. However, because of processes of cinematic identification (camera placement, central characters, etc), this critique, in my reading of the film was utterly lost. This critique comeas across more clearly in film director Tom Roberts’ New Statesman editorial, in which he writes of “the tyranny of unintended consequences,” the violence that often greets even the best U.S. intentions. Roberts himself is skeptical that democracy is currently “untenable” in Iraq, and adds that the situation there is even worse than its representation in teh UK media.
There has been some discussion of the fact that many PBS stations, fearing fines from the FCC, would air a slightly altered version of A Company of Soldiers. The Georgia Public Television station where I watched the show chose to air the edited version, and while I’d certainly have preferred the “raw” version, I’d imagine that the difference between the two was negligible. I’ll also add that the current inability to show the “raw” version illustrates the need for some serious dialogue about restrictions on free speech, but more importantly, PBS’s caution demonstrates the very vital need for a more vibrant role for public television in general.