by Erik Childress
Films about the Iraq war and the lack of interest at the box office has been well-documented. Aside from Paul Haggis’ excellent, but overlooked In the Valley of Elah, films like Grace Is Gone, Stop-Loss, Home of the Brave and The Lucky Ones have been poorly executed and flat-out sloppy exercises that have done no justice to the soldiers who have made it back or the families waiting for their return. You may be tired of hearing about the topic just in the few times I’ve mentioned it in this very article. I have to admit, even I have been inundated with enough narrative and documentary features in the past five years that I couldn’t bring myself to watch HBO’s acclaimed Generation Kill miniseries. But was I glad that I wasn’t tired enough to sit through Kristian Fraga’s Severe Clear, which we may look back as one of the best.
Based partially on a memoir but mostly collected from first-hand footage, Severe Clear is the story of First Lieutenant Michael T. Scotti and his tour with Charlie Company 1st Marines during the first wave of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Culled from God knows how many hours of video by Scotti, this is the real deal that makes Brian DePalma’s Redacted look amateurish by comparison. Beginning with the gung-ho days when Scotti’s battalion were excited to exact the revenge no one openly discussed for 9/11, Severe Clear instantly reminds us of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and how our soldiers had to keep things light in the face of a situation they haven’t yet begun to grasp. Coupled with readings from his journal and an almost satiric commentary from BBC news reports, the arc of Severe Clear is as striking as any war narrative you can imagine. Neither Republican nor Democrat in nature, it would be interesting to hear a member of the former party defend Donald Rumsfeld’s response to how things were playing out at the time.
Apocalypse Now is actually invoked by one of the soldiers during one of the many firefights they endure during the film, but it was already well on my mind as another portrait of one man’s journey to decipher where his mission was headed. Scotti’s footage never shies away from the thick of battle and the harsh aftermath, some of which will be hard even for fans of The Horseman to endure. It’s so encapsulating that we, at times, wonder if his commanding officers ever told him to put the camera and pick up his weapon. Fraga’s editing is a masterstroke of information and he knows just when to let the visceral rush and terror of the video speak for itself. Severe Clear is more than just another collection of moments and memories; presenting just how quickly war can change a person. We understand Scotti’s disposition getting off the plane and the retribution we were seeking. There was no big switch to change his attitude towards the mission overnight. He wasn’t delivered the smoking gun about the failure to discover WMD’s that turned America’s pulse. His company actually discovered a few and he was still way ahead of the curve than what was being reported to us back safe at home. The version I saw was still in rough cut form, a few shots missing here and there layering it with its own redacted irony, but it was more than complete enough to recommend it as strongly as I possibly can. And when you see the full version at SXSW, I suspect you will spreading the word as well.