Body of War: Phil Donahue’s Anti-War Documentary

April 16th, 2008 - by admin

Body of – 2008-04-16 22:54:30

Body of War is an intimate and transformational feature documentary about the true face of war today. Meet Tomas Young, 25 years old, paralyzed from a bullet to his spine – wounded after serving in Iraq for less than a week.

Body of War is Tomas’ coming home story as he evolves into a new person, coming to terms with his disability and finding his own unique and passionate voice against the war. The film is produced and directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro, and features two original songs by Eddie Vedder. Body of War is a naked and honest portrayal of what it’s like inside the body, heart and soul of this extraordinary and heroic young man.

Body of War: 9/11 in Toronto
Review by Richard Corliss / TIME Magazine

It’s easy to convince a people to go to war, one political leader wrote. “All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifist for a lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” Robert Byrd declaimed that quote to the Senate, as Congress was debating whether to authorize the President to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Then Byrd read the source: Hermann Goering, 1934.

In October of 2002, when most lawmakers were rushing to get their votes in so their constituents would not denounce them as pacifists and vote them out of office, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) wondered at the timing. “Three weeks before election seems to be an odd time to be authorizing war.” While many senators (including Kerry) parroted bogus stats supplied by Iraq “experts” on the imminent danger Saddam posed to the U.S., Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) counseled caution: “There is no victory in the destruction of one tyrant while breeding 10,000 terrorists.”

John McCain, a Vietnam POW for five years, voted for the war; but a few used Vietnam as a warning from history. “You’re sentencing thousands of Americans to sure death,” declared Rep. Pete Stark (D-Cal.). “Some of you did that [when the Senate authorized the Vietnam engagement in 1964], and you can look at the 50,000 names on the wall down on the Mall. Don’t do it again.”

In the 60s, America’s participation in the Vietnam war had a readymade counter-insurgency: the young people who might be drafted to serve in it. This time, the most articulate opponents are not the young people eligible to go to war. It’s the ones who came back. The ex-GIs who now serve in antiwar groups are not natural radicals, not lifelong pacifists.

They love their dogs. They love their wives (and wish, the ones most severely wounded, that they could make love to them). And they luvvvv the gung-ho war movie Top Gun. They just think the Iraq occupation is a shame on our conscience, a killing field for their buddies. They believe they have the right to speak up, and that the rest of us have the obligation to listen.

Body of War, directed by docu-doyenne Ellen Spiro and Donahue, intercuts the 2002 war debate with the postwar life of Tomas Young, a soldier who was paralyzed with a shattered spine within a week of arriving in Iraq. Now, after months recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital, Young is back home with his fiancee, annoyed by the mundane aspects of confinement: how, constantly, “my body shows how much it disagrees with me.”

He’s about to be married, and is worried that his leaky bowels will embarrass him during the ceremony. At times, this gentle, articulate guy shows the pressure of a film crew’s crowding presence. “You wanna film my fridge?” he asks Spiro. “What are we on, MTV Cribs now?”

Young is not just a poignant survivor; he is a persuasive proselytizer. He speaks at rallies with a quiet authority seared in experience. And because he had comrades killed in Iraq, he tells Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes that he’d protest the war even if he hadn’t been paralyzed: “I would still speak out – although I probably wouldn’t have as firm a leg to stand on.”

Then, instantly correcting himself: “Or chair to sit in.” The contrast of the Congress’ surrender to political dictates and Young’s heroism, in Iraq and back home, makes this superb documentary almost unbearably moving.

Donahue got involved when Young said he wanted to meet Ralph Nader, and Donahue, a Nader friend, came along. But the political hero of Body of War is Byrd, nine-term Virginia Senator and, in his 20s, an Exalted Kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan. Though the Senator and the soldier might seem to have little in common, they are bonded by their opposition to the occupation, and their meeting serves an apt climax to the film. Byrd is near 90 now, and he walks with difficulty; as Young says, “I see we’ve both got some mobility issues.”

Together they read the names of the senators who in Oct. 2002 voted against authorizing the war – “the immortal 23,” Byrd calls them.

In the ears of the other 77, Byrd’s call back then must ring in their ears like the angry voice of a conscience ignored. “Wait!” he shouted in the echoing chamber. “Slow down! Don’t rush this through.”

The ghosts of 9/11 still stir.

Videos and Music

• Now availalble: Body of War: A 2-disk CD of music by Bruce Springsteen, Tori Amos, Neil Young and 27 other leading bands and performers. All profits go to Iraq Veterans Against War. Available from Sire Records and from

Body of War: Notes from the SF Screening
Gar Smith / EnvirosAgainstWar

Phil Donahue’s and Ellen Spiro’s “Body of War” was recently screened for a preview audience in San Francisco. Spread the word: Tell everyone you know to see this film.

Tomas Young, the 25-year-old disabled soldier at the heart of the story is as compelling as any leading man in any film I’ve ever seen. Tomas is smart, observant, wry and sassy.

And Senator Robert Byrd deserves a place in heaven for the speech he gives warning Americans not to allow Congress to abandon the Constitution by giving unchecked war powers to George W. Bush. “My hands may tremble but my resolve is firm….”

It’s a speech that belongs in the ranks of the Gettysburg Address and the “I Have a Dream” speech.

When Rep. Barbara Lee appeared, refusing to back the war, the theater erupted in applause. There were striking expressions of dissent from Barbara Boxer, Nancy Pelosi, and Ellen Tauscher. These women all came off looking heroic. But Dianne Feinstein, not so much.

During the course of the film, there’s a recurring drumbeat of ballots as one senator after another votes to give Bush Congress’s authority to declare war.

But toward the end of the film, we start to see those whom Byrd calls “The 23 Immortals” — the senators who voted against the war.

Sean Penn has likened this film to a “Coming Home and Born on the Fourth of July for a new generation.” The National Board of Review selected this film as the “Best Documentary of the Year.”

For me, the concluding scene, brought to mind the last memorable minutes of Casablanca.

During the Q & A, first-time filmmaker Phil got into a raucous argument with a sizable portion of the audience who wanted to call for impeachment.

Donahue dismissed impeachment a waste of time — “It’ll never happen” — and a misdirection of energy. He argued that the impeachment fervor was driven by the same kind of anger that spurred Americans to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. When the crowd persisted, he came up with a more persuasive argument. “If you start impeachment proceedings, you’ll energize the Right and you’ll elect John McCain.”

Donahue’s still a marvel. Full of youthful brass and vinegar. Oscar Alert: This film could become Donahue’s “Inconvenient Truth.”