Last Friday at the Angelika Film Center Severe Clear, Kristian Fraga’s incisive on-the-ground documentary of a U.S. Marine battalion during early phases of the Iraq War opened. Working exclusively with First Lieutenant Mike Scotti’s first-person video footage and diary-style voiceovers, Fraga crafts a distinctly nonpartisan portrait of contemporary military life during wartime.
Scotti and his fellow Marines are an unapologetically rough-and-ready bunch, drinking, tussling, and cursing like, well…soldiers. (In Scotti’s own words, “all the clichés are true”). But they’re also fervently devoted to accomplishing the early mission (however misguided) of Operation Iraqi Freedom: dethrone Saddam, avenge 9/11, and “liberate” the citizens of Iraq. Thus, Severe Clear offers a vital history of the fleeting period when the motives of the U.S. military seemed self-evident and almost instinctual, especially to these young recruits. Brandishing a photo of a former high school classmate turned 9/11 victim, Scotti vows to “do my part in making sure she didn’t die in vain.”
As the battalion forges their way towards Baghdad, long stretches of boredom and anticipation quickly give way to sudden spurts of gunfire, bedlam, and the viscera of the battlefield. Unlike the whitewashed accounts from major news outlets (whose bumbling reporters invite Scotti and his pals’ mocking disdain), Fraga doesn’t shy away from images of brain matter, defecation, and even a child’s corpse in showing us the paranoia, instability, and omnipresent danger of these soldiers’ lives. Such moments fuel Scotti’s growing ambivalence towards his role in the conflict, leading to some surprisingly frank revelations in his closing monologue: “you live in a sort of limbo, where everything gravitates towards uncertainty, chaos, and disorder.”
As an evenhanded, honest portrayal of Scotti’s experience, Severe Clear is a cogent and necessary corrective to the demonizing faux-“first person” caricatures of Brian De Palma’s execrable Redacted. Coming to New York on the heels of The Hurt Locker’s recent Oscar triumph, it couldn’t be a timelier release.