The complications of war and the conundrum of media but heads in Severe Clear

by Sara Schieron

A documentary made from footage taken during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Severe Clear offers a Marine level view of Operation Iraqi Freedom, but its first person account brings with it some complications. First Lieutenant Mike Scotti shot the footage that captures the pat clichés about Marines (think Playboys, swearing and beer) along with the excruciating pauses between gunfire and scenes of actual battle in active theaters of war. A soldier’s journal and an oblique indictment of the media that (it’s suggested) didn’t accomplish in 7 years what this film does in 93 minutes, Severe Clear provides a view of the early days of the war and reminds you of all the promotion and idealism that conflict came with. In ways, Severe Clear is to The Hurt Locker what The September Issue was to The Devil Wears Prada, and that can do nothing but help box office, which, for a doc of this size will be predictably small.

First Liutenant Scotti makes clear that the Marines are a different breed. They’re aggressive and rowdy, and they might not all like each other but they love and respect each other because they earned the title “Marine.” These guys are a legion defined by their loyalty and that’s inherently admirable and warm, even when they air hump each other and drop grenades over walls to test the sturdiness of their protective barriers. Once their orders lead them into Bagdad, to fight the war in an urban landscape, the story grows more intense and ambiguous. This is where the unfolding complications of war grow more explicit and innocent citizens (in one case, a child) become the accidental casualty in a context where the battlefield is anywhere with two weapons. The Marines are unassailably united, but for the people in the “warzone” it’s every citizen for himself. And that’s where the simplicity of the situation ends.

These men love their jobs and are energized into combat. At one point they negotiate which weapon they’ll use to take out a building in the far distance. One says that killing one man could cost $20,000 and this choice, they excitedly discern, “Is War.” Later, beneath a dark sky streaked with red, another yells, “This is the coolest thing ever! It’s raining bombs! Steel Rain!” The brio and the economics expose a logical and tense system of pulleys and levers. And while the threat of War (in principle) evolves into the reality of this war, the idealism that our narrator entered with slowly gives way to a creeping distrust of his mission and the MO of the administration his actions support. The work of a Marine in war will, as his commanding officer says in a pep talk, “echo throughout eternity.” Nothing here is to be taken lightly. Additionally, Severe Clear is working to satisfy a lack in the media machine that represents the war, meanwhile what the film represents is fraught with other conflict that shouldn’t be ignored.

At one point, Scotti calls what the news media are doing ‘not news, more like PR,’ and while that’s astute and this film is clearly making strides to be the “honest representation” that can’t be found on TV, it is a conundrum of its own. Maybe that’s part of the film’s goal: maybe Scotti, who’s clearly not anti-war (though I’d be putting words in his mouth to say he’s pro-war) is perfectly at peace with the fact that war’s exciting onscreen. In this case, perhaps there’s no conflict. But as far as I can see, a handful of real Iraqis were shown, bodies destroyed by explosion and gunfire—and, in the end, what I’m calling this movie is entertaining. That’s no tidy proposition.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Link to Boxoffice Magazine