Before deploying in Iraq, some U.S. soldiers stop off in the Mojave Desert for a three-week simulation of the conditions they'll face overseas, set in a makeshift complex of villages populated by Iraqi-Americans. The civilians have been given a complex set of instructions for the game. Some are meant to be sympathetic to the American cause, while others are fed up with the occupation. Some have recently lost family; others have joined the police force. The complex has restaurateurs and governmental officials, and even an American cable-news reporter who files stories that run on the TVs back at the base. It's like Laser Tag crossed with "How To Host A Murder," on a monumental scale. And just as with "How To Host A Murder," a lot of the elaborate role-playing devolves into people trying to complete the objectives on their cards as fast as they can, without paying enough attention to the other people in the room. (Any similarities between this and actual wartime conditions is… coincidental?)
Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss' documentary Full Battle Rattle follows one whole training session from start to finish, capturing the Army's earnest efforts to make sure our troops understand the consequences of being culturally insensitive or lax on details. If a soldier accidentally kills a civilian, insurgent activity increases, and soon the trainees are holding simulated funerals for their fallen comrades. Full Battle Rattle works just fine as a two-fisted combat story, with unexpected bursts of violence peppering that old universal message that war is hell. But the added layer of pretense pushes the movie to another level. From the Iraqi villagers getting praised for their realistic kidnapping-and-beheading videos to the soldiers carrying "casualty cards" that tell them what wound to fake for the medics, Gerber and Moss lead the audience through the looking glass. And when the man who plays the deputy mayor complains that he never gets promoted to mayor, or when one of the "insurgents" (played by an American soldier back from two tours of duty in Baghdad) admits that he has a hard time sharing downtime with the Iraqis, it's clear that the emotions this exercise stirs up are far from pretend.