From the archives of Christopher Campbell. A version of this review of Patricia Foulkrod’s documentary The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on September 15, 2006.
If Vietnam was the first televised war and the Gulf War could be considered the first 24-hour coverage war (thanks to CNN), then the Iraq War might be called the most-first-hand-documented. Thanks to the more-immediate technologies of digital filmmaking, documentaries have been in abundance since the beginning of the conflict, giving us everything from ground-troop-shot films to quickly released looks at its aftermath. At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, films took us into battle alongside American soldiers (The War Tapes) and Iraqi insurgents (The Blood of My Brother) and brought us back home with the vets (When I Came Home; Home Front). Despite an overload of these documentaries, there still can’t be enough of them, as they provide us with countless points of view and an immeasurable acquaintance with the reality of the ins and outs of the war.
Patricia Foulkrod‘s The Ground Truth: After the Killing Ends, which screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, could be considered just another film about the homecoming of US troops and their difficult return to civilian life. However, despite its sharing two faces with When I Came Home (featured interviewees Paul Rieckhoff and Herold Noel), the differences between the two films mark an apparent allowance for numerous looks into the subject matter. While covering Tribeca, I actually decided to skip the Iraqi vet pic Home Front, thinking it would be hard to handle too many similar films (it screened the same day as When I Came Home and The Blood of My Brother). Now I feel that there is no such thing as too many when it comes to understanding this or any war. It is the same reason that movies about World War II and Vietnam will continue to be made. The difference is that with documentaries, the immediacy of the truth seems to hit a little harder.
The Ground Truth doesn’t just examine the soldier’s return home; it also introduces us to his and her construction by examining the recruitment, the training, the battle, and then the homecoming. By doing this, its audience becomes better familiarized with how the soldier is altered not just by war, but by the whole experience of being in the armed forces and why the experience, in general, is cause for a hard re-entry into civilian life. One thing it touches on is the psychological training for killing that began after World War II and showed how hesitant the majority of men were to fire their weapons. The horrible result of this mental adjustment is that “good soldiers make bad civilians.” Many of the film’s spotlighted veterans now feel safe only with a gun under their pillow.
An important fact addressed in the documentary is that soldiers are actually offered psychological counseling after their service, but they are also given the option of waiving the therapy in order to go straight home. Obviously, one interviewee points out, the soldier will almost always choose the latter after being away from home so long. Although it isn’t suggested directly by the film, the logical solution, given in the context, would be to mandate this counseling.
But The Ground War is not so much about criticizing the US government’s handling of veterans or about seeking changes to the military process. Foulkrod attempts an apolitical stance on the issues as much as is possible in a film that shows the after-effects of war. It would be very difficult to produce an honest look at mentally and physically injured vets that isn’t viewed as being anti-war. The Ground War merely gives a voice to these injured. Depending on their audience’s interpretation of their words, the film may come off as having a political agenda, but to think of the film primarily in terms of politics would be unfair to its subjects, the vets who are simply looking for an outlet and maybe assistance to their peers who don’t have such a forum.
Despite showcasing a number of vets with new disabilities and disorders, the film has more of a sense of hopefulness than other similar docs. Like the handicapped character Homer in The Best Years of Our Lives, which dealt with the World War II homecoming and which may be thought of as having too happy an ending by today’s standards, many of the impaired vets in The Ground Truth are shown with spouses or girlfriends who support and care for them. Who knows if this is the normal circumstance, but it is more importantly the optimistic one, and may offer much-needed encouragement to the many vets who might otherwise commit suicide. Still, Foulkrod doesn’t ignore the fact that it is hard for the vets. But if anything, from the mouths of most of her interviewees, the point is that it is hard, not impossible.
The success of The Ground Truth lies in the courageously open and honest interviewees, but it works because of Rob Hall‘s editing, which not only compiles for us a perfectly evidential collection of footage but does so at a pace that doesn’t dilly-dally in any way. One section of clips presents a look at boot camp training, which depending on viewpoints, evokes either Triumph of the Will (the mindless obedience) or Full Metal Jacket (the mindless torture), and the first response to it might be, “Where did they get this kind of access?” But it doesn’t matter who shot it — chances are it wasn’t shot for the film — or how. The important thing is how it is used in this documentary to support its information. Intercut with the testimonies of the film’s subjects, it becomes a shocking visual aid.
The visuality of the war in Iraq is necessary, in abundance, and The Ground Truth is powerful in its ability to not only recount events, but show them as well. The more documentaries that come out of this war may decrease the need for dramatic versions for Hollywood to exploit later on because, while fictional or re-created narratives may give us a point-of-view about a war, there’s nothing like a surplus of first-hand nonfiction to give us the option of developing our own.
This review was originally published on September 15, 2006.