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New Video presents
The War Tapes (2007)

"It will be a better country in 20 years, because we were there. I hope."
- Sgt. Steve Pink

Review By: Ross Johnson  
Published: June 18, 2007

Stars: Zack Bazzi, Mike Moriarity, Steve Pink
Other Stars: Duncan Domey, Ben Flanders,
Director: Deborah Scranton

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (intense violent footage, language)
Run Time: 01h:36m:00s
Release Date: May 15, 2007
UPC: 053939784725
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AA-B+ B+

DVD Review

In early 2004, members of Charlie Company of the 172nd Mountain Infantry were given the opportunity to film their impending deployment to Iraq, almost a year following the initial invasion. A few agreed, and three of those are the focus of The War Tapes, a feature-length documentary from the producers of the acclaimed docs The Fog of War and Hoop Dreams. From March, 2004 to February, 2005, Sgts. Steve Pink and Zack Bazzi, and Spc. Mike Moriarty, all of the New Hampshire National Guard, would film the war using hand-held camcorders as well as with cameras mounted on gun turrets and helmets. As you can perhaps imagine, the resulting footage is troubling.

The three soldiers with the cameras are well-chosen in that their disparate personalities contrast effectively in showing us a few different attitudes toward combat: Mike Moriarty is an intensely patriotic father of two who joins the Guard immediately following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, very much against the wishes of his family. Pink is an easy-going joker on the surface, but a writer at heart whose journals betray a deeper sensitivity than he tends to let on. Bazzi was born in Lebanon, not yet a citizen, and has a sharp political mind, with greater doubts about the mission than others. He and Pink spend much of their time in the field defending the private contractors of KBR/Halliburton, and the unpleasant irony of risking their lives for a company that proceeds to charge the military $28 a plate for each meal is hardly lost on any of them. In spite of the varying degrees of philosophical commitment the occupation of Iraq, no one is comfortable with dying to help others get rich. Whatever their politics, all three are dedicated and exceptional soldiers.

The setup has much in common with that of Off to War: From Rural Arkansas to Iraq, another firsthand account of National Guardsmen deployed in Iraq. That was an important series, and broad in its scope, but this movie is tighter, and in many ways more intimate. The daily violence is also more immediate: cameras are always at the ready, and there's no intermediary between the soldier and the footage. A reporter or cameraman may be kept specifically out of harm's way, but these men have no option but to stand in the fire. The rapidly changing nature of the conflict is most evident in some of the quiet moments that become instantly life-threatening. One of the men will be goofing around on camera when shots ring out, or an IED detonates nearby. It's literally constant, and when soldiers suggest nuking the entire country, or blowing away anybody that doesn't look like an American, it's not hard to get into their heads, if only briefly. It's almost impossible for the Americans to push for progress in Iraq when they're struggling daily just to stay alive. When the camera lingers on the mangled bodies of insurgents, it's hard to know whom to feel for.

Enemies are everywhere, and the danger to the American soldiers is the primary concern, but it's the accidental death of an Iraqi civilian that most haunts Mike Moriarty. Everyone seems to have different views of the mission, but most agree that it has something to do with establishing a form of stability for innocent Iraqis. That nameless, faceless woman stands-in for a great deal of the unnecessary death that haunts the men upon returning home. Even given their best efforts, it's hard to feel that they've accomplished anything beyond staying alive. For their families, who have suffered in their own ways, that's more than enough. Still, it shouldn't have to be. Bazzi, a cynic from the start, is sanguine about his homecoming, having known what he was getting into. Moriarty, enthusiastic in joining-up, returns shattered and vows never to return.

It's extremely difficult to know what conclusions to draw from the film, but that's as it should be. Politicizing is kept to a minimum, although, in the same way that it's tough to make a truly anti-war dramatic war film, it's almost impossible to make a pro-war documentary. The truth of war betrays any effort to soften its impact. Perhaps better than any film to return from Iraq thus far, The War Tapes takes a step toward that truth.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image transfer here is, perhaps surprisingly, top-notch. The source material comes from small cameras either held or mounted on helmets, flak jackets, and on gun turrets, so naturally it's not all pristine. Nevertheless, it's all been transferred well with strong colors and no digital artifacts or other problems.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: While a five-channel track might have been nice, it probably would have been overly artificial considering the camcorder source material. Nevertheless, the stereo track is clear and clean during moments of dialogue, and appropriately intense during combat footage.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
9 Deleted Scenes
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Interviews
Extras Review: The extras here consist mostly of unused footage. While in some instances that wouldn't bode well, the extra footage here brings you just a bit closer to the reality of the New Hampshire National Guard Unit's year in Iraq. The Extended Footage runs about 80 minutes, accessible vis "Play All" or as nine individual scenes. There isn't really any extra combat footage, instead it's all day-to-day life material, or talking-head interviews. The main feature film is an appropriate length, but this extra footage provides some added detail for those fascinated by the film.

The other significant feature is a set of Interviews with the soldiers from the feature on various topics. There are ten altogether, grouped by topic, viewable individually or via "Play All." There's background into the filming process, reactions to the film from family members, other soldiers, etc., and a bit more insight into the thinking of the three soldiers featured most prominently. Again, not essential to appreciate the film, but it's much appreciated background.

Also included is a theatrical trailer, bios of the director and producers, and a brief text piece about Docurama, the distributor.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

The War Tapes take us closer to the truth of day-to-day life for American soldiers in Iraq than most of us would care to go. The news media has thus far found it difficult to bring the Iraq War home to those of us not in uniform, but three soldiers with hand-held cameras admirably do just that. The extra footage and interviews included here only add to the experience. Simply, this is an important work in a quality DVD package.


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