"The War Tapes," a slice-of-life, on-the-front-lines film shot by National Guard soldiers stationed in Iraq just as the insurgency was beginning to swell in 2004, goes to wide release on Friday. But the film has already won fans and accolades in limited release.
The project, crowned best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in May, depicts what it's like to be a soldier at war and captures all the mixed emotions that go along with the job.
But unlike other documentaries about war, this one offers a fly-on-the-wall view of the experience — primarily from three of the soldiers' and their families' perspective — before, during and after their deployment.
Director Deborah Scranton, who was asked to embed with the New Hampshire National Guard as a filmmaker, said she instead decided to "virtually embed," putting the civilian servicemen behind the cameras and directing them from New Hampshire over e-mail and instant messaging.
"I was really interested in getting as close to the experience of war as possible, to climb inside of it, to feel it all around," Scranton said in a telephone interview. "It was a very conscious decision [for me not to go to Iraq]. I felt it would diminish what the soldiers were creating."
Scranton and the producers say their intention was not to politicize the war in Iraq or take a pro- or anti-war stance in the documentary, but to let those with the cameras show all sides of being stationed in a combat zone: the frequent action, violence and attacks; the mundane moments and duties; the interactions with the Iraqi people; their complicated array of emotions and moods; and their differing opinions about the mission in Iraq and their role in it.
The three featured soldiers are Specialist Mike Moriarty, 34, Sgt. Zack Bazzi, 24, and Sgt. Steve Pink, 24, who filmed during the entire year they were in Iraq. Two other squad members had cameras and were responsible for some of the filming. In total, 10 from the unit had volunteered to participate.
"'The War Tapes' is not a political film in the usual sense, but in honestly bearing witness to these soldiers' experience, it reveals their politics and opinions candidly, whether they support or oppose their mission," Scranton says in a statement posted on "The War Tapes" Web site.
Co-producer Steve James adds that the filmmakers didn't want to cut out any of those points of view, but rather "embrace them."
"In many ways, Mike, Zack and Steve each embody a lot of the contradictions and conflicts that America struggles with about this war, with one important difference: they're fighting it too," James says on the site.
Not surprisingly, however, "The War Tapes" has captured the attention of groups of various political stripes, some of which have attempted to use it to bolster their own sentiments and agendas. Organizations of all shades have screened the film, including left-leaning think tank The Center for American Progress and pro-military Web site Military.com, among others.
The unit featured in "The War Tapes" — the Charlie Company 3rd of the 172nd Mountain Infantry — is assigned to provide security for the extensive convoys of KBR trucks that ship supplies to locations around Iraq. Military contractor KBR is at the heart of not only what the film's soldiers are doing but what their lives are like there.
In that vein, a prominent focus of the documentary is the love-hate relationship the men have with KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary. On the one hand, they're benefiting from the services the contractor is providing for them on the base, and their job revolves around protecting the company so it can continue its work. On the other, they're frustrated and cynical about the industry giant, which they see as a money-making machine that often errs more on the side of profit and frivolity than on the side of safety.
The military cameramen give a rare behind-the-scenes look not only at the violence in Iraq faced by soldiers and Iraqi citizens every day but also at what KBR and other contractors are doing.
"Our primary mission is convoy security," explains Moriarty in the documentary. "We go out every day to the KBR/Halliburton truck yard, we escort their convoy to wherever ... and we take one back."
"The stuff that KBR is driving is logistical stuff," adds one squad member who did some filming, Spec. Brandon Wilkins (the fifth is Sgt. Duncan Domey). "We're moving cheese. Cheese, food, soda, paper, supplies and fuel too."
Most of the commentary about KBR and other aspects of deployment in "The War Tapes" gravitates toward cynicism, an attitude frequently verbalized by the subjects of the film.
"KBR annoys me. I don't want to talk politics, but man, they got it good," says the squad leader, Kevin Shangraw. "Take every store in your town, every gas station, police department, fire department, and let it all be run by one company. I mean, that's basically what they do. They have their hand in anything you can think of. KBR runs all our chow halls."
While he's speaking, a snaking line of trucks rolls by onscreen. The camera pans around grocery store aisles, a mess hall, a post office and a barbershop, all on a military base. Later are shots of Burger King and Pizza Hut.
"Everybody there stands to make money the longer we're there," says Wilkins. "So that's why we refer to it as 'The War for Cheese.'"
But those feelings are counterbalanced by pro-war remarks, some of which relate to economic motives.
"We’re in Iraq for money and oil. Look at any other war in the history of the world and tell me it’s not about money," Pink says in the film. "This better be about money and if we don’t get that oil and that money, then all the lives that are gone right now … They’re all in vain. You don’t put 150,000 troops from all over the country in there and say we’re there to create democracy. We’re there to create money, you know?"
He can't help but finish his monologue with a critical comment about the Bush administration, however.
"Somebody other than Dick Cheney better be getting their hands on it pretty soon,” says Pink.
Cheney ran Halliburton from 1995 to 2000, just before he was elected vice president. He divested himself of his stake in the company after he was elected, though he still gets deferred compensation from the company. His unexercised stock options all go to charity.
Though Moriarty — who says he went to Iraq because he wanted to help avenge the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in this country — takes issue with what he sees as KBR's motive of profit over safety, he said in a phone interview that he doesn't "jump onto 'the war is for oil and money' bandwagon."
"I don't have this conspiracy theory that someone is handing Dick Cheney a check in his back pocket or there's a secret ship coming to the United States with oil," he said. "I support the war. I don't think it's for money. I don't think it's for oil. I think it probably should be for oil."
He said he also believes that KBR is the best candidate for the job they're doing.
"I don't have a problem with KBR being there — a contractor has to do it because we don't have enough troops there," Moriarty said in the interview. "And what other contractor could do it?"
But he admitted that the company's tactics frustrate him. Case in point: the time KBR sent him to guard one of their trucks full of cheesecake, in spite of the danger of attacks by insurgents. That annoyance hasn't changed in the year-plus since he has been back from Iraq.
"What I have a problem with is, is anyone watching the books?" he said in the interview. "While I believe in the war, I believe that KBR's profit motivation, in addition to our own screw-ups as a government, have created such a needy situation."
KBR's abundant spending is "abusive," Moriarty said, adding that he witnessed a lot of wasted resources during his year of deployment.
"All I see is money being spent. I think KBR is going to be the last one to stand up and say, hey, we're spending too much of your money. They're going to keep going. They're a business and making money is their No. 1 priority," he said.
KBR has frequently made headlines since U.S. troops went to Iraq in 2003 to oust dictator Saddam Hussein. Most of those news stories have been about the Halliburton subsidiary's spending, which Pentagon auditors and some politicians have found questionable and excessive, especially in light of Cheney's ties to the private company.
Supporters of KBR — a rare type of global contractor that has worked in the Middle East for years — have defended the financial practices, saying KBR is operating under urgent time constraints in a violent environment. They also say KBR is the only firm of its kind with an established track record that can provide the wide range of services it does in a war zone.
"I don't think there's any other contracting firm that could execute the kind of missions KBR is contracting," said Col. Gerry Schumacher, who served with the Army's Special Forces and wrote the recently published "A Bloody Business" about wartime contractors. "They seem to be the only act in town that can do it reasonably well."
Whatever the economic motives of the Iraq war may or may not be, Schumacher said he believes the accusations of overspending and manipulating finances by Halliburton and others is unfair hype.
"I don't think contractors like KBR are cooking the books. They're just trying to keep track of the books," he said, adding that KBR and other similar contracting companies face life-threatening situations every day and are dealing with constant chaos, which makes it difficult to keep good records of expenses or regularly stick to a budget.
"It's incredible the danger they put themselves in," said Schumacher. "The exaggerations about over-billing are grossly taken out of context. So often, trucks are blown up on the road, the Army calls and says we need another truck. This repeats itself dozens and dozens of times a day, to the point where we're trying to track the money — who does what, where. It's not designed the way an accounting job would be in the United States."
In an e-mail interview with FOXNews.com, Halliburton officials defended its spending practices and said the company has cooperated fully with government audits.
"KBR will continue to work with our customers and with the appropriate government agencies to demonstrate, once and for all, that KBR has delivered vital services for U.S. and coalition troops and the Iraqi people at a fair and reasonable cost, given the circumstances," the firm wrote.
According to Halliburton's representatives, KBR has prepared almost 375 million meals, provided more than 4 billion gallons of water, transported more than 570 million gallons of military fuel and delivered nearly 190 million pounds of mail. More than 650 trucks are on the road daily, and they have logged more than 100 million miles transporting military supplies and equipment.
"By all accounts, KBR's logistical achievements in support of the troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan have been nothing short of spectacular," the e-mail states.
KBR is just one of several central threads of "The War Tapes," which also captures missile attacks, car bombings, house-to-house searches, Iraqi police training and more ho-hum duties — like guarding human waste.
"My team has been tasked out to provide security for septic waste trucks," Bazzi says in one segment. "Whoever said being a soldier is all blood and glory obviously forgot about the sh—. ... We are bringing democracy and good vegetation to Iraq."
Those who made the documentary say it wasn't easy paring down 1,000 hours of footage to 97 minutes.
"For me, the subjects of your film are always the most important," James, one of the producers, wrote on the Web site. "The film needs to tell their personal stories set against the larger backdrop, not the other way around. ... We spent an entire year editing ... challenging each other's assumptions, arguing passionately, rearranging sequences, trying different openings and endings."
Scranton, for her part, says "The War Tapes" is "the story of the flawed hero" and was intended to give the soldiers on missions in Iraq a voice. The result is that they have many voices expressing many sentiments, depending on the day, the mood and the situation at hand.
"It's political in the truest sense of the word, as far as [its inclusion of] stimulating dialogue," she said of her documentary. "I made this whole film to let them speak for themselves. This is how soldiers talk. ... Soldiers think. They philosophize.
"I have a profound respect for soldiers."