View Full Version : Fog of War

06-01-07, 07:30 AM
June 01, 2007, 5:00 a.m.
Fog of War
A festival of troops.

By Peter Suderman

“Support the troops!” It was an exclamation you couldn’t miss this weekend at the first-ever G.I. Film Festival. It was everywhere: on bumper stickers, in conversations, on stage, and on screen.

It became the weekend’s all-purpose response, like saying “Jesus” at vacation Bible school. What are you here to do? Support the troops! Are you enjoying the festival so far? Yes. It supports the troops! What’d you eat for breakfast this morning? Bacon and eggs. Did I mention I support the troops? Eventually I simply started writing “STT!” in my notes every time it came up. There were variations, of course: giving back to those who serve, respecting the men and women in uniform, and, from the festival’s official statement of purpose, celebrating “the successes and sacrifices of the American military through the medium of film.” In fact, festival cofounder Brandon Millett told me that the idea for the weekend came as a reaction to an Los Angeles Times column in which Joel Stein wrote, “I don’t support the troops.”

This, then, was an appropriately powerful, American-military-style response: Joel Stein wrote a single line in a single column; he got a 22-film, three-and-a-half day festival in return. How’s that for U.S.-military might? From Friday evening through Monday night at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in downtown Washington, D.C., the troops were supported — and supported and supported and supported. And whether you were watching movies, singing songs, or meeting the many “special guests” it was, at all times, earnest, sincere, and proudly patriotic, whether in the screening room or outside of it.

In the hallway outside the theater, a dozen or so sponsor groups set up tables and stands. Most were affiliated with the military: the Paralyzed Veterans of America, *************, an outfit called the Military Intelligence Readiness Command (MIRC). I’m not sure what MIRC does — something involving “a dynamic and synergistic relationship with the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM)” — but they had a nifty-looking video with some complicated-looking graphics that played before one of the movies. At the booth set up by Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that builds and modifies residences for injured soldiers, Tom Benoit, the organization’s vice president, enthusiastically rattled off story after story about the gee-whiz technologies his group has been able to install in the homes of handicapped veterans, including a “hi-tech bathroom” that would allow handicapped vets to get by without human assistance. I’ve never seen anyone so excited about a toilet. But Benoit, like so many people there this weekend, is the kind of person who gets excited over anything that will aid those who’ve served. Even a toilet.

The one thing the G.I. Film Festival was missing was people. Most events filled less than 50 seats, and the best-attended event — a Saturday-night showing of Forrest Gump, followed by a ritzy after-party with co-star Gary Sinise — couldn’t have had more than 150 attendees. At least one screening had less than 25 people in the theater when the lights went down, and most everyone I talked to was connected with the festival — an employee, filmmaker, or family or friend of someone who was.

Still, that didn’t seem to get the festival’s founders down. “Turnout was a little light,” admitted cofounder Laura Law-Millet, “but the people who came saw how great it was.” Her husband Brandon echoed the sentiments, saying he judged the success of the festival not by its number but by its response. “I’ve had so much positive feedback,” he said, noting with some surprise how willing others have been to offer help. “The universal response we’ve had when putting this together was, ‘What do you need me to do?’” The couple plans to start work on next year’s festival almost immediately.

And what did those who didn’t make it miss? There were celebrities, of a sort. Pat Boone — yes that Pat Boone, the one who released an album of jazz and big band-tinged heavy-metal covers — showed up in a bright blue double-breasted suit, milk-white pants, and a sailor-striped polo shirt to sing a song that started with the line, “I grew up in the heartland...” Fitness guru Billy Blanks strolled into the Sinise-attended formal after-party wearing a blue-and-white tracksuit, which is probably appropriate for a man who appears to be constructed from felled Redwoods. The next evening he showed home movies of him leading troops in Iraq through fitness routines. “LET’S LIFT THEM UP!” flashed in big, block letters on screen, which in fitness speak translates roughly to, “Support the troops!”

There were more serious Hollywood personalities as well. Actor and former Marine R. Lee Ermey, famous for his iconic, profanity-laced opening monologue as a Vietnam-era drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, walked out on stage and delivered bits and pieces of the classic scene (although he left out a few bits and used the word “bullfeathers,” which I assure you was not in the original). Directors John Dahl (Rounders, The Great Raid, The Last Seduction) and Ron Maxwell (Gettysburg, Gods and Generals) answered audience questions and participated in a panel discussion Hollywood and the military.

And there was even time left for movies — 22 in all. There was a whiff of History Channel about the weekend’s offerings, which featured lots of archival war footage and talking heads, but only a few of the movies shown were clunkers, and most were solidly, if unspectacularly, produced. And there were even some gems. Two of the standouts, The Patriot Act and Operation Homecoming, you can read about here, but two others are also worth mentioning. The first is Shakey’s Hill, an hour-long documentary in which a CBS cameraman who’d been embedded in Vietnam found the surviving members of his company and got them to fill in the blanks of his footage. The second is Speed and Angels, which, despite being a documentary, probably provided the weekend’s most compelling personal narrative. The movie, which was shot in jaw-dropping hi-def, follows two Navy-pilot trainees through the process of being certified to fly F-14s off of aircraft carriers. The human story is as affecting as any narrative feature, and the aerial flight photography is simply heart-stopping. It doesn’t take much to make F-14 flight completely thrilling, but that doesn’t change the fact that, in Speed and Angels, the buzz of fighter-jet maneuvering is as remarkable as ever.

It would be tough to have a pro-troop film festival during a time of war without venturing into politics. Both of the festival’s founders say it’s intended as a nonpartisan event, but you might not have known it from some of what was said onstage. Saturday’s panel, titled “War Stories: Untold Tales of Heroism from the Front Lines,” quickly fell into a vehement antiwar-pol bash. “The left side of the aisle is al Qaeda’s propaganda machine,” Ermey announced. Retired Colonel Robert Howard, a winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, stood up and beat a fist on his other hand, exclaiming that Congress is “an embarrassment to the American people,” and that we need to “get rid of them sorry representatives that can’t stand up for freedom!” In the V.I.P. section behind me, a filmmaker whose movie showed at the festival whispered, “This is getting too political for me,” then stood up and left. The next day’s panel featured a lot of beating up on the George Clooney movie, Syriana, and director Ron Maxwell lamenting how “disconnected” Hollywood has become from the realities of its own country.

But despite its occasional political moments, the weekend wasn’t really about politics, or celebrities, or even movies themselves. Both of the festival’s founders admit to not being “movie experts.” “I’m more of an advocate for the troops, and I’m using the film festival as a vehicle for that,” Brandon Millett said. Movies were the medium, but the message was about the need for all Americans to rally around men and women in uniform. And between the military-wonk trivia questions that scrolled across the screen before the movies, the stars, the sponsors, and the vets in the audience, that’s exactly what the festival did. Like so many soldiers, it performed its duty and got the job done, and everyone in attendance was clearly appreciative. One might be able to argue that its motives were too simplistic, that “Support the troops!” was said too much — but after a weekend like this, it’s easy to see that the better argument is that it can never be said enough.