There's a strange irony in the fact that one of the most provocative documentaries about the ongoing war in Iraq was shot some 7500 miles from Baghdad in California's Mojave Desert. There on a sprawling, 1000 square mile stretch of arid, sun-scorched land, the U.S. Army has constructed it's own Iraq at the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, a facility designed to train soldiers who are about to be deployed to the real locale. But the NTC is much more than a desert obstacle course: It's a billion dollar virtual world with 13 different mock Iraqi villages staffed with 1600 role players, 250 of whom are Iraqis who eat, sleep and work at the facility. Each actor is given a name, a cultural and religious identity, a backstory and an often complex motivation: Some are Sunni, others are Shiite; some welcome the Coalition forces with open arms while others are embittered by the loss of friends and family members. Interestingly, the insurgents -- and they are legion -- are played by actual U.S. soldiers, while the trainees themselves are equipped with laser-tag-type harnesses that register the results of militia attacks. One Lieutenant Colonel compares the endeavor to "one big reality TV show," but it's more like an epic role-playing game with a Defense Department budget and a cast of thousands.
Surprisingly, Army officials allowed filmmakers Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss to follow a combat battalion as it underwent the two-week training course at Medina Wasl, an unstable "village" with an active Sunni insurgency that could tip the town into civil war. (Gerber would embed with the combat brigade while Moss would move into the village itself.) According to the scenario devised by the Olympian "simulation architects," the son of Medina Wasl's Shiite deputy mayor has been kidnapped and executed by a group of Sunni thugs, and it's the battalion's mission to provide security, interact with the local leadership and win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi civilians by providing lucrative reconstruction contracts and jobs. Courtesy, professionalism and respect are paramount -- interactions with the villagers are rewarded or punished with varying levels of insurgent activity -- but complications soon arise. Several civilians are killed as a result of a "poor escalation of force," and the brigade's inability to find the Sunni assassin leads to sectarian violence and possible civil war. This increasingly complicated scenario isn't scripted, peace is far from guaranteed and the line between reality and its incredible simulation has a funny way of getting blurry.
At the end of two weeks, Gerber and Moss collected over 350 hours of footage which they've whittled down to a fascinating -- and quite revealing -- 85 minutes. The end result is a remarkable document that sheds quite a bit of light on how preparing soldiers for particular situations can reinforce preconceptions and reduce the highly complex and unpredictable situations that await them in the real Iraq to war-game scenarios. But there's also an unexpectedly poignant side to the film. Many of the facility's Iraqi employees -- Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians, united at last -- have been deeply affected by the war they are now play acting for the benefit of troops that will soon occupy their homeland. The title, by the way, is age-old slang for a soldier's complete combat gear, which for the U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- both real and otherwise -- weighs over 50 pounds.
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- Released: 2008
- Rating: NR
- Review: There's a strange irony in the fact that one of the most provocative documentaries about the ongoing war in Iraq was shot some 7500 miles from Baghdad in California's Mojave Desert. There on a sprawling, 1000 square mile stretch of arid, sun-scorched land,… (more)