‘Severe Clear’ movie review: Marine’s video journal is transformed into realistic war film

By Stephen Whitty

In 1990, Vietnam vet Tim O’Brien published “The Things They Carried,” an interlocking collection of stories about soldiers in combat.

His characters weren’t just weighted down with weapons and supplies; they lugged fear and hope and duty, too.

The men and women of today’s armed services are no different. Yet many of them also carry new and sometimes game-changing bits of baggage: digital cameras, sturdy laptops, links to the outside world.

Severe Clear

(R) Sirk Productions (93 min.)

Directed by Kristian Fraga. With Mike Scotti. Now playing at the Angelika in New York.

Stephen Whitty’s Review: Three stars

Rating note: The film contains graphic battle footage, strong language, brief nudity, substance abuse.

Mike Scotti of Red Bank — then a first lieutenant in the Marines — took a tiny video camera when he went overseas in 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. He came back, thankfully, in one piece — and with a duffel bag full of tapes and journal entries.

They’ve been smartly and carefully edited here by filmmaker Kristian Fraga into the documentary “Severe Clear,” which mixes Scotti’s first-person filmmaking with news clips, maps, music and still photos.

And it’s about as boots-on-the-ground as war reporting gets.

It starts with Scotti goofing around at home, trying on his gas mask for the camera. (Can any man younger than 50 do that and not lapse into a Darth Vader impression?) Then comes the long, boring, 40-day trip over on the U.S.S. Boxer.

Scotti’s own cinematography is wonderfully crisp and clear, even under terrible conditions. (His previous camera hadn’t survived his tour in Afghanistan.) His own journal entries — although marred by a slightly self-conscious style — are bracingly honest.

After all, this is the video diary of a young Marine, not an armchair general. He clowns around with his buddies — but he also rails against the lack of translators, endless horrible food and  the general “cheapass equipment” they’ve been issued.

It’s an attitude that World War II correspondents like Bill Mauldin would have recognized.

“If we don’t tell our own story,” Scotti declares at one point, “who will?”

And Scotti wants to tell the truth — even if that’s sometimes a shifting, awkward thing.

For example, he talks frankly about how this mission is both justified “revenge” for 9/11 and a necessary blow against Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction — but, by the end of the film, says that both beliefs were mistaken.

And yet his camera also shows clearly that our troops were greeted as liberators, at least at first. (Scotti catches Baghdad residents gleefully tossing the Americans packs of cigarettes — a neat reversal on the days during World War II, when G.I.s passed out smokes to civilians.)

Fraga — a Leonia native, whose first feature, “Anytown, U.S.A.,” focused on the 2003 race for mayor in Bogata — has done an impressive job with Scotti’s raw footage. (And the word “raw” is correct, in all its connotations; the language is uncensored, and the closeups of blood, wounds and body parts are graphic.)

Admittedly, this is a picture done on a very small canvas. There are no real interviews; the Iraqis never speak at all. Analysis is in short supply.

But what is here, front and center, are the experiences of one unquestionably proud (and sometimes proudly questioning) Marine.

Link to the Newark Star-Ledger