Hollywood rarely gets war right. Mainstream directors tend to downplay the emotional heft of war's gruesome violence, and when they do pile on the blood and lost limbs (say, Saving Private Ryan), they still keep the feel-good story afloat by giving the soldiers a great, noble purpose—something to assure viewers that the bloodshed and lost lives were all necessary to keep the American Dream alive.
There are exceptions, of course, but Hollywood largely keeps the myth of noble war alive in the minds of Middle Americans. And that's one of the reasons why Operation Homecoming is so affecting: It's 80 minutes of sheer, crushing honesty—war as told by actual soldiers in the Iraq War.
The level of candidness probably hasn't thrilled the Bush administration, but oddly enough, this documentary got its start with a federal government initiative through the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA-funded Operation Homecoming project, which helps soldiers write their stories, culminates in this documentary, as well as a book anthology.
And that tax money that went into the project? one hundred percent worth it. Operation Homecoming doesn't have a political agenda—it doesn't have to. By simply letting the soldiers tell their stories, it becomes blatantly clear that the best way America could "support the troops" is by bringing them home. They're painfully aware of the futility of their service, and of the disconnect between the armchair generals in DC and their sand-infested boots in Iraq—and they're living the nightmare.
The stories—mostly nonfiction—are read by celebrities, but the authors are featured between segments, along with celebrated war authors like Tim O'Brien and Anthony Swofford.
It's as visually stunning as it is emotionally engaging—each segment features a different visual style, from actual Iraq War footage to dark reenactments to montages of photos of dead soldiers. One of the most effective segments uses an almost comic book technique, with sparse, stylized black-and-white sketches. The effect is perhaps more harrowing than actual war footage.
The Iraq War is stupid and pointless, yes—but Operation Homecoming, at least, is a small upshot, turning out incredible writers who otherwise wouldn't have an audience.