NEA project gets cinematic treatment

Operation Homecoming

on February 09, 2007 by Mark Keizer
“What Every Solider Should Know” by Sgt. Brian Turner:
If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon, assume it is a wedding party.
Enter a home with your right foot. Your left is for cemeteries and unclean places.
There are men who earn 80 dollars to attack you, and 5,000 [dollars] to kill you.

There is nothing poetic about war. War is about blood and fear and death and suffering, and that's if you win. But there is poetry in how some soldiers choose to articulate their war experiences. The men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan who participated in Operation Homecoming convey their thoughts with honesty and clarity.

Hundreds of poems, essays and letters were initially gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts for a book project. Director Richard E. Robbins was charged with taking a select number of pieces and using them to create the documentary. He chose wisely.

The 11 works that comprise the film show soldiers coming to terms with what they've seen and done. They form a smooth arc of experience, from acclimating to the new environment to being escorted home in a coffin. Collectively, these stories bridge the gap between abstract, war-justifying concepts like liberty and everyday emotions, heightened and made pure by the terror (and boredom) of combat.

Each story is visualized using a different filmmaking technique, and Robbins' challenge was deciding what style would be most appropriate for each piece. He thankfully avoids straight reenactments and instead goes for interpretations that are sometimes painterly, sometimes light-hearted and sometimes off the mark.

Korean-American Sangjoon Han's partially fictionalized story concerns a soldier who shoots a fleeing Iraqi farmer for not stopping when ordered. Han's tale of needless, but inevitable, death is augmented by beautiful, surreal and slow-moving imagery. The coolest-looking but one of the least successful segments involves the graphic novel treatment of army specialist Colby Buzzell's panic during an ambush. The three-dimensional panels of black and white may be the language of the videogame generation—the generation most likely to serve—but it trivializes the soldier's story.

These wonderful works are not read by their authors but by celebrities such as Beau Bridges, Aaron Eckhart and Robert Duvall. The latter voices “Taking Chance”, Michael Strobl's touching remembrance of escorting a fallen soldier back to his small Wyoming town for burial. Robbins hauntingly follows the dead soldier's journey down highways, streets, churches and gymnasiums, all mournfully empty, before reaching his final resting place.

Robbins sprinkles the documentary with interview bites from each story's author as well as authors who served in Korea and Vietnam. What the movie doesn't include is politics. There is no talk of a “neocon agenda” or a “liberal drive-by media.” The words “George Bush” are never spoken.

Instead Operation Homecoming takes the horrible realities of war, liberates them from creative, philosophical and troubled minds, and releases them into a civilian world where RPGs, IEDs and the death they guarantee aren't omnipresent concerns. Distributor: The Documentary Group
Cast: Robert Duvall, Beau Bridges, Aaron Eckhart and John Krasinski
Director/Producer: Richard E. Robbins
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 81 min.
Release date: April 6, 2007 LA

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