The soldiers in Deborah Scranton's documentary The War Tapes have the clean-cut, disciplined air of characters in an Army recruiting video, but their mission is both more mundane and more dangerous than anyone promised. They spend most of their days clearing a path for Halliburton supply trucks through crowded Iraqi streets, where any passing car could be—and often is—carrying a bomb. Then they report back to a cozy base with its own Burger King and video store. Day by day, their cynicism increases and their trigger-fingers get itchier.
For The War Tapes, Scranton supplied mini-DV cameras to several soldiers and asked them to record as much as they could of their year in Iraq, even if it meant attaching the equipment to helmets and gun-sights and just letting the tape roll. Then Scranton and a team of editors (led by Hoop Dreams honcho Steve James) narrowed their focus to three National Guardsmen: Steve Pink, a breathless college kid who joined for tuition and to "test" himself; Zack Bazzi, a cool-headed Lebanese immigrant with a pragmatic approach to dirty jobs; and Mike Moriarty, a temperamental middle-aged family man who joined in a rush of post-9/11 rage and paternal anxiety. Moriarty is the most poignant figure in the bunch, as he comes to resent the wastefulness that accompanies his job, while nurturing disgust for the people he's there to help. But Pink and Bazzi are just as compelling: the former because he's sensitive enough to know he's setting himself up for a lifetime of nightmares, and the latter because he knows that "occupation doesn't come natural to an infantry outfit," yet he keeps volunteering anyway.
The War Tapes falls just short of greatness, because its scope is too limited. Scranton does spend a fair amount of time documenting the home-front woes of the soldiers' wives, girlfriends, and parents, and the film's last 20 minutes is given over to the struggle of reintegrating into civilian life, alongside people who don't want to hear the details of the war. But while Scranton clearly respects the soldiers' sense of duty and patriotism, she makes it only a slight refrain in a symphony of moaning about Halliburton's $28 paper plates and the annoyance of training Iraqi policemen. Then again, Scranton is overly obsessed with bellyaching only because she's got a strong point to make. The War Tapes shows how Pink, Bazzi, and Moriarty get bruised by their time in Iraq, even as they take stubborn pride in having participated, and it shows how their practiced nonchalance helps a massive military operation become a self-sustaining morass.