The Stench of War
(This review was first posted when Severe Clear screened as part of IDA’s DocuWeeks 2009 in order to qualify it for a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. It is now receiving a more official theatrical run beginning on March 12, 2010, when it opens in New York City. Visit the film’s official website to learn more.)
When America premiered the riveting made-for-television sequel Iraq War 2: Electric Boogaloo back in March of 2003, it was billed as a new and exciting way to “experience” battle from the comfort of one’s shrapnel-free couch. This time around, our considerate government had implemented a new system of media coverage in which journalists and filmmakers would embed themselves with actual military units and report back to us using an on-the-ground, immediate approach the likes of which we’d never previously seen. It was going to capture what war was really like!
Of course, things turned out differently. If anything, the obvious censorship on display only enhanced the rising feeling of skepticism and concern with regards to that whole murky endeavor. Gradually, feature-length documentaries began to arrive that showed the situation for what it really was, and until I saw Kristian Fagra’s Severe Clear, I would have gone on record as choosing Garrett Scott and Ian Olds’ Occupation: Dreamland as my pick for the definitive cinematic report on this particular moment in American combat history. But after having experienced Severe Clear (as opposed to “experiencing” it), I’ve made room for two at the top of that list.
Severe Clear is about as first person and immersive as a film about war—or any subject, for that matter—can be. Compiled from mini-DV footage shot by the film’s main subject, Marine First Lieutenant Mike Scotti, as well as fellow soldiers Tim Lynch, Joe Holecko, and Captain Jeimar Patacsil, Severe Clear follows Scotti as he packs his bags in America and begins his long journey to help unseat Saddam Hussein and liberate the citizens of Iraq. In voice-over, Scotti reads from journal entries and letters home to further establish the film’s foreboding present tense. Though we know historically what’s going to happen, the tension rises off the screen in waves like the smoldering Middle Eastern desert heat. The only thing we’re missing is the smell, which Scotti goes a long way to describing in words. Though according to him it can’t actually be described, the site of vomit and snot dangling from one soldier’s nauseous face gets the point across quite nicely.
As constructed by Fagra—whose editor credit here takes top billing over the director tag (since he’s doing both, that makes them interchangeable, I suppose)—the story of Severe Clear unfolds in a straightforward manner. During the 40-day voyage across the Arabian Sea, Scotti has time to address the clichés about soldiers in general and Marines in particular (his verdict: turn them up even louder). He also explains, in clear, concise language, what makes Marines such a distinct breed of human creature (like a porn star or an Olympic gold medalist). Not to insult Fagra, Scotti, or the Marine Corps in general, but the footage of these soldiers interacting during both R&R and intense battle makes Brian De Palma’s Redacted look like an even more shamefully, atrociously, insultingly stylized work than it already did.
That said, there is a valid comparison to be made between Severe Clear and a recent Hollywood war picture. It isn’t just because Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is currently playing in theaters and is another exceptional work of cinematic bravado set during this exact war. The truth is that both of these films shun politics in favor of representing, with palpable urgency, the frenetic, indescribably complex allure of soldierhood. Fagra uses sound bites from Dubya and Rumsfeld, as well as news reports from multiple countries, to add dramatic, as well as political, dimensions to his film, but at its core, the only perspective Severe Clear is interested in conveying is Scotti’s harrowing present-tense one. What lifts the film to a truly special level is that it also succeeds as a visceral historical document about this controversial moment in time.
— Michael Tully