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American Soldier Doesn't Choose Sides

Just a sample of the destruction on hand in John Laurence's Tribeca doc, I Am an American Soldier

By Tobi Elkin

Director John Laurence said he didn't set out to make a political film about the war in Iraq. Yet his haunting new documentary I Am An American Solider: One Year In Iraq With The 101st Airborne, which is in competition at Tribeca and had its world premiere Thursday night, leaves one skeptical of the irony in his self-effacing, understated response to a barrage of questions from reporters who challenged his seemingly apolitical stance with incredible ferocity.

"We set out to make a film that was not a polemic," Laurence said at a press conference earlier in the day. "We set out to find some truths about the war." Laurence and his crew followed soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division for 14 months, observing their preparations in the U.S., their Iraq tours of duty and their returns home. The soldiers' interviews, footage and the soundtrack hit hard; the film was nearly as raw as last year's The War Tapes, in which director Deborah Scranton gave soldiers digital video cameras to film their experiences in Iraq.

So what truths did Laurence uncover? One: "That [the soldiers] aren't there for their country -- they're there to save one each other [from dying]" and two: "There's no master plan ... We just wanted to document their lives. We didn't set out to make an anti-war film or a pro-war film, just an interesting film."

"Interesting" is strangely ironic, and if he weren't such a veteran news journalist (he documented the Vietnam War in Charlie Company in 1970 and was embedded with the 101st Airborne in 2003), I might think he was insincere. In an era of journalist superstars/opinionmakers/bloggers/sensationalists/critics/telecelebs, Laurence and his partners' impartial old-school perspective on documentary reportage seems slightly old-fashioned.

"[The soliders] go to war expecting to make a difference and they end up after a year realizing that's not going to happen," he told reporters who peppered him with aggressive questioning. Laurence added that the most profound observation in the film comes from Sgt. Luke Murphy, who says: "We're training for a guerilla war, and all our tactics are conventional."

Laurence and his team crafted an exquisitely shot film, made even more emotionally riveting by its soundtrack; the filmmakers asked the soldiers in the film to submit their ideas for music, some 200 songs, winnowed down to a dozen or so including, Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here," Bruce Springsteen's "Devils and Dust" and his haunting rendition of "Mrs. McGrath": "No, I wasn't drunk and I wasn't blind / when I left my two fine legs behind. A big cannonball on the fifth of May / tore my two fine legs from the knees away."

Documentaries about the long-running war in Iraq, now dubbed a "surge," are generally not such great prospects for distribution, but Laurence isn't placing all his bets on a theatrical release for American Soldier; he said he is in discussions with cable and broadcast networks to create a series of five one-hour programs based on the film and other footage.

Posted at April 27, 2007 5:56 AM

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