“Armed with a Camcorder, a Marine penetrates the fog of war.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, visibility in the skies over New York City was unlimited — what some pilots call “severe clear.” It’s why the images of that day are so sharp.
Filmmaker Kristian Fraga took this historical footnote and turned it into the title of his new grunt’s-eye view of war as seen through the camcorder of Marine 1st Lt. Mike Scotti.
“Severe Clear” is a fitting title, Scotti says.
“It’s why the terrorists were able to line up on the towers from so far away,” says Scotti, who lost a high school friend that day.
Scotti went to war with a similar kind of stark clarity. A forward observer with 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, he was set on vengeance.
He had a box full of blank videotapes to capture it all in living color.
Scotti returned from war with hours of vivid video, but his certainty was replaced with a fog of confusion. After seeing so much, he felt unseen by the civilian world around him and unsure of the war itself.
“I went there with such clarity and came home in a dust storm,” he says. Turns out, on severe clear days, the horizon can melt away — the sky and ocean blurring together, leaving pilots unsure if they’re going up or down.
“Yeah, I was mad,” he says. No weapons of mass destruction. No link to 9/11. And good Marines were dying. “I was mad for about a year, and then I just got over it.”
The movie captures Scotti’s journey in jerky, gritty, yet often all-too-clear detail. Fraga’s editing weaves the Marine’s raw footage and plain-spoken narration into a 93-minute immersion into war that has already garnered acclaim at film festivals, even as it opened in limited release around the country.
It’s a cliche to call documentaries “unflinching,” but Scotti’s story will make many squirm. In war, sometimes you see too much, and Scotti wants the viewer to see too much, as well.
“This isn’t ‘The Blair Witch Project’ — this is real,” he says. “If we didn’t include the harsh stuff, it wouldn’t have been real.”
More than that, though, he hopes civilians come away from “Severe Clear” understanding the reality of war and warriors, as opposed to the P.R.-like public portrayals so common today.
“If we’re going to be sent to the other side of the world to kill or be killed, people should get a chance to see us for who we really are.”
And what they really see when they’re getting shot at. And what it looks like when people die. When the brain of a little girl falls out of her skull. Or a man bleeds to death. Or when the simple act of stepping onto an airplane can become the most surreal of moments.
The purpose is not to shock, but to bring understanding.
“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult,” wrote fabled military strategist Carl von Clausewitz. “The difficulties accumulate and end by producing a kind of friction that is inconceivable unless one has experienced war.”
That’s a quote familiar to every Marine, but Scotti says he hopes the unremitting clarity of a movie that pulls no punches might make the inconceivable just a bit more comprehendible.
“I wanted to create a shared experience,” he says. “I didn’t want to do this for people who have served in war. We already know what it’s like. I did this for those who haven’t been to war. I wanted to be able to show my parents, my brothers, my girlfriend and say look, this is what we went through.”
It was the idea of shared experience that helped Scotti find his way through the fog that came after war.
“It helped me bridge the isolation gap,” he says. He hopes it can do the same for other veterans who may struggle with finding the words for their own experiences.
“You’ve got to fight through that fog,” he says. “I encourage everyone to find a creative outlet, whether it’s writing, painting, poems, photography or whatever. You have to find ways to get that stuff out and tell your story.”
Real clarity has come in reaching out to other vets. Although he got a high-paying job on Wall Street after leaving the Corps in 2007, last year Scotti helped launch Reserve Aid, a nonprofit organization that so far has raised more than $3 million for reservists struggling to pay bills.
“I want to spend some time fighting for the right thing,” he says. “I’ve seen the power in helping out other people in need. Now, I’m trying to use my energy for good.”