It's been nearly two years since soldier Bradley Manning was arrested under suspicion of obtaining and distributing classified military documents to WikiLeaks. The 24-year old Oklahoma native now faces 22 different charges, including aiding the enemy — a charge that, if he is found guilty, would result in possible life imprisonment.
In December of 2011, near the beginning of Manning's first hearing, folk singer Cass McCombs premiered a new song to protest the trial. McCombs' lyrics mostly ignore the alleged leak; instead he looks at the events leading up to Manning's emotional breakdown and violent outburst in Baghdad. McCombs describes Manning struggling to fit in with the other soldiers, singing "It's hard to imaging why bullies dig / but Bradley understood it came with the gig." McCombs' version of Manning is an outsider who never found a permanent place to fit in. The song ends with McCombs speaking directly to Manning, saying "Bradley, know you have friends, though you're locked in there."
McCombs worked with director Bradley Beesley for the song's video, filmed in Manning's hometown. Shot in color that evokes film from the 1970s, the video follows twin boys as they explore the town on Independence Day. On the surface the video feels simply immersed in American symbols: fireworks, a painting of soldiers, an American flag fluttering in the breeze. Set to McCombs' words about bullying and the struggle to fit to a certain masculine role however, the images take on new meaning. The inherent violence of the fake gun and the firecrackers (a few look like tanks) becomes easier to notice. The final shot of the twins running and shooting off exploding fireworks in the river becomes a strange blend of the joy of kids having fun and the high tension that comes from being in a war zone.
Director Bradley Beesley described in an email working in Cresent, Oklahoma for the video:
Cass approached me about making a video for the Bradley Manning song while I was in Oklahoma, my home state, working on my TV series, 'Mudcats' — a show about men who catch giant catfish by hand. I have spent a lot of time in rural towns in Oklahoma working on my films and I felt it was a perfect time and place for this video.
Cass and I spoke about a visual theme and thought that filming in Bradley Manning's home town of Crescent, OK would create a strong context for his song. I wanted to create small town American imagery to reflect the environment I imagine Bradley Manning came from. Fortunately, I was able to shoot on Independence Day which allowed us to capture some iconic and patriotic visuals that create a mood that is somehow complimentary to the song.
The twin boys in the video are Will and Jack, my nephews, and together we make short films each summer. It's a way for us to bond and make art. This video was a way for me to speak to them about the Bradley Manning story while keeping it in the context of real life, in his town rather than a heavy news story.
I enjoy opportunities to collaborate on projects like this that give you as a filmmaker a sense of purpose and it doesn't hurt when you get to be the 'cool uncle' at the same time.
In an email Cass McCombs offered a few of the sources which inspired him to write "Bradley Manning":
If you are interested in the subject and person of Bradley Manning, these items might be of some use. This is the article I based the song on. I found it on a train while in London. Around that same time, a friend sent me a postcard that read, 'Took some flowers to Booth's grave recently. Thought of you.' I saw Angelina Llongueras read this poem at a protest in San Francisco and was moved to tears. Another friend of mine sent to me this blog written by his teacher. And of course, www.bradleymanning.org.