War is hell, but it can also be high drama. In boots-on-the-ground documentaries like Gunner Palace and Occupation: Dreamland, we got a discomfiting look at the brutal realities and moral ambiguities of America’s war in Iraq, where the death toll rises along with the administration’s rhetoric. “I want some answers,” an army Pfc. says in Dreamland (directed by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds), which chronicles a few months of infantry action in the doomed city of Fallujah. “I want some clarification of what we’re doing.” Stephen Marshall’s Battleground provides a few bewildering hints as insurgents openly talk about their hatred of the United States and an Iraqi interpreter blithely explains that the invasion was a result of an American economic collapse. Inside Iraq: The Untold Stories is a lesser piece of work. Its maker, ABC-TV freelancer Mike Shiley, has cluelessly boasted that he joined an army tank unit as a gunner and earned a civilian combat award after firing in a village along the Syrian border.
The Iraqi-made doc The Dream of Sparrows may be the most disturbing of all, a glimpse of life under occupation in which Iraqis directly address Western viewers in tones ranging from despair to anger to guarded hope.
With truths like these, there’s scant need for fiction. But Sam Mendes’ star-studded Jarhead (Jake Gyllenhaal, Jamie Foxx) provided a look at Marine Corps culture in the first Gulf War, and writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (with George Clooney and Chris Cooper), a political thriller set in an unnamed Persian Gulf nation, has plenty of harsh things to say about intrigue and corruption in the global oil industry.
Given 2005’s output, can filmmakers now declare Mission Accomplished where Iraq is concerned? Hardly.