'Off to War': Intimate Portrait of U.S. Soldiers in Iraq

The Discovery Times Channel launches the second season of Off to War on Saturday. Television critic Andrew Wallenstein says the intimate look at Arkansas National Guard members deployed in Iraq lacks the grit one would expect from a war-related documentary, but the series offers an invaluable view of the war from the viewpoint of small-town soldiers.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

There's no shortage of news coming out of Iraq these days, but sometimes that news--bombings and body counts--can be numbing and you come away not really understanding what's really going on there. Well, to help, the Discovery Times Channel has a new installment of its documentary series "Off to War." It starts Saturday. Here's DAY TO DAY TV critic Andrew Wallenstein with a review.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

Filmmaker brothers Brent and Craig Renaud spent nearly a year immersing themselves in the lives of the Arkansas National Guard's 239th Engineer Company. They first began shooting in October 2003 as the men trained at home. The first three hours of the series, which aired last year, tracked them up until their first days in Baghdad. The next seven hours begin tonight, following the troops through the rest of their active duty ending in March 2005.

"Off to War" allows you to view some of the most significant turning points of the war through the eyes of these soldiers, from the transfer of sovereignty to the national elections. Their viewpoints vary soldier to soldier, but the filmmakers always managed to capture some interesting conversations, as you'll hear in this scene in which the torture techniques evident at Abu Ghraib prison are debated.

(Soundbite of "Off to War")

Unidentified Soldier #1: What do you think about these naked people making a pyramid?

Unidentified Soldier #2: It's disgusting.

Unidentified Soldier #1: I think they're making too big of a deal out of it.

Unidentified Soldier #3: Well, what would you do if that was American prisoners?

Unidentified Soldier #4: Well, no one chops nobody's damn head off. I mean, they're just naked.

Unidentified Soldier #3: The reason the United States is making a big deal out of this is because it is wrong, and hopefully it won't happen again.

Unidentified Soldier #1: It's just a picture.

WALLENSTEIN: "Off to War" aims to convey not only the experience of war for these men but the loved ones they left behind. The cameras give equal time to their families back in Arkansas. Small-town Americana couldn't come any more vintage. Norman Rockwell could have set up his easel there, but the portrait is far from trouble-free. In one heartbreaking scene, a boy listens while his mother talks about his dad being overseas. As the pain of what she's saying sinks in, the boy freezes in place. It's almost as if his mother has to hug him back to life.

Torment also pokes through the otherwise brave facades of their brothers and fathers back in Iraq. It's not just that their lives are fraught with danger from moment to moment. It's the fact that some of these soldiers openly question whether it's worth it.

(Soundbite of "Off to War")

Unidentified Soldier #5: I guess the hardest thing for me is why am I here? Why did I have to be taken away from my family? And I know that there's thousands of other soldiers that's here, and I'm pretty sure they have that same thought at times.

WALLENSTEIN: There's nothing stylistically interesting about "Off to War." It's shot as off-the-cuff as a home video, and it feels appropriate because the action speaks for itself. It's difficult material, but I found myself feeling obligated to watch, as if I was doing my own small part just trying to understand. The news is filled with accounts of military spending, but it takes a documentary like this to appreciate the war's true cost.

BRAND: Andrew Wallenstein writes about television for the Hollywood Reporter and for us here at DAY TO DAY.

(Credits)

BRAND: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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