Severe Clear is the Iraq documentary I’ve been awaiting conscientiously if not eagerly. There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of retrospective examinations from a position of authority – e.g. the macrocosmic No End In Sight and the microfocused Standard Operating Procedure – or, in lesser quantities, on-the-ground reportage. The best-known of those is probably 2004’s Gunner Palace, which could be politely described – in internet slang – as Epic Fail. Well-intentioned though they were in spending time with soldiers both at rest and patrolling, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein screwed up by including little you couldn’t have seen on the news – gore and atrocities discreetly off-screen – and also in basic competence, like providing audible sound.
Working from the footage of Marine Mike Scotti, Kristian Fraga does much better. An Afghanistan vet who voluntarily re-enrolled and went over to Iraq in 2003, Scotti took along a camera for documentation and kept a journal with the ultimate purpose of writing a book; the movie’s accordingly divided into titled chapters. Rarely on-camera, Scotti’s personal arc and perspective on the war is kind of beyond the point. There’s no revelations here; from the opening blast of Marine excitement to Scotti’s closing sense that something’s gone wrong, there’s no surprises. What there is is an utter lack of reserve, a jolting immediacy that could’ve come from Walter Hill, but one that never telescopes the war into its own bloodless movie.
Scotti’s portrait of the Marines is unambiguous: “We’re loud, drink too much, fight too much, curse too much,” he announces. “All the cliches are true.” Neither the saints that so endeared Taking Chance to conservatives nor the retarded rednecks of Brian De Palma’s rock-bottom Redacted, the Marines here don’t have any personality except collectively, which is wise: Fraga and Scotti refuse to milk the deaths of individual soldiers for easy pathos. They’re seen in fragments and in voice-overs, profanely exultant; the collective, retaliatory bloodlust for 9/11 colors everything. “People are dying,” one says after an early battle. “This is the coolest thing ever.” News reports frame the soundtrack, but the soldiers are stuck on the ground: sitting in masks wondering if they’re getting gassed, one announces “We just heard that Jennifer Lopez just died back in the States.” They’re conscientious about their job – which, they’re quite clear on, is to kill people, not police Baghdad – and avoiding civilian casualties. Scotti’s division is a good one, bloodthirsty within understandable limits.
There’s footage for every stage of the journey, from the initial weeks aboard a massive carrier to the waiting in Kuwait for a go-ahead to the actual road to Baghdad. Footage naturally changes from the jocular to the jolting, and the brilliance of Scotti’s footage is that, as a veteran soldier, he’s got no qualms about capturing the most brutal stuff. It’s one thing (numbing and monotonous) to hear testimonials from soldiers about how seeing mangled corpses shakes you; it’s another to see them with their skulls half-open, unsurprising but still upsetting. Scotti’s also meticulous about the Marines themselves and the general shittiness of life during wartime: especially during a tactical halt, when the Marines pause on the road while waiting for supplies or god knows what, he’s nerveless about capturing the flies on the corpses, the generally mucousy atmosphere that hits the soldiers with attendant contamination, and even someone shitting into a crate in the middle of the road. This is reportage no one’s dared so far.
Fraga’s editing makes the footage formally, as well as viscerally, meaningful. For our first major digital war, he uses the inherent giltches and noise patterns on the original footage as wipes and dissolves from one moment to the next; the digital grain becomes its own aesthetic, with a night-time rocket attack visible only as an avant-garde exercise in red lines darting Tron-like across blackness; footage veers between the grimly coherent and the disorientingly illegible. At times, Scotti simply has to plunk the camera down as he gets to work and the compositions can be inadvertently arresting: a close up of a cigarette and hand tapping a radio console, people working through a tangle of wires that creates bizarre mise-en-scene.
When they hit Baghdad, Scotti’s shocked to learn that Babylon was real: “I thought this shit only existed in fucking Led Zeppelin songs.” Predictably, when things sour in Baghdad, Scotti starts wondering if the mission’s as justified and righteous as their commander’s motivational speech made it seem. Musing on the battle-field, Scotti notes: “You’ve got to keep it simple out here” to survive. The “out here” is key: if soldiers (and the Marines, to whom the film is unambiguously at least in part a testament) have no choice but to keep their blinders on to complete their mission, that’s what they must do; for those off the battlefield and out of the immediate moment, though, there’s no excuse for not thinking hard about what’s happening. But that’s not Scotti’s problem for much of the film, and Fraga avoids preaching to the anti-war choir: Severe Clear does a remarkable job of erasing what we know now and plunging us back into the immediate initial campaign. Its portrait of the military is unsympathetic and clear-eyed, and the overall film grimly exciting. Severe Clear doesn’t answer any questions, but that means there’s no chance for self-congratulation either.