“The idea of war can be glorious, but war isn’t,” Nelson Reyes, November 2001 following the beginning of the U.S. bombardment of Afghanistan.
“It would be cool to get a combat badge,” Sara Miller, January 2003 waiting at Fort Bragg for deployment orders to Iraq.
“The best Christmas present I ever had was getting out of the [U.S.] Infantry on December 23,” Thaddeus Ressler, June 19, 2004.
“Army of One” should become required viewing for all troubled youth, their uncertain parents, the military establishment and their detractors or supporters.
Made on a shoestring budget, Sarah Goodman’s film follows three idealistic young Americans from their decision to enlist in the army through their struggle to survive boot camp all in hopes of discovering themselves. They abandon the relative safety of their own families for a much larger one that extols “one set of values,” the mantra “we are beasts,” and relentlessly drills in such useful facts as the best way of garrotting a fellow human being is to “jab between the second and third rib.”
Goodman’s approach is to stand back and let the recruits tell their own stories. What could have turned out to be a propaganda piece (either adulating the military or slamming it) soon places the army into the background and brings the evil twins of slick marketing and rudderless youth under the microscope.
Reyes joins the “world’s biggest gang … not just to get out of the [NYC] neighbourhood,” but to gain the respect and admiration of his parents and peers. When he returns in uniform that has been pressed, polished and puffed up he hopes that its sameness at the do-as-your-told barracks will make him stand out in his private world. Initially, all is beautiful, put his hidden personal demons send him AWOL and into an unstoppable downward spiral that has yet to touch down.
Miller, supported by her constant companion Phuong, has trouble keeping up with the guys, but perseveres and is voted squad leader (“I’m not a born leader,” she remarks). Having survived the ravages of her father’s seven-page caustic letter, she seems to find comfort in the military and waxes philosophical (with a cup or two of rationalization) about her chances if shipped out to battle: “If you’re not meant to die today, you won’t.”
At this moment, and many others, the superb team of Music and Sound Supervisor Daniel Pellerin and Composers Mark Stewart and Paul Watson underscore the unfolding human psychology with a score—particularly the drums—that reflects the angst and dilemmas facing the rookies as they journey.
Thaddeus grips our attention every time he’s on the screen. At first, he’s in heaven, chanting with glee and eager to put his budding rifle skills at the service of his country. Later, when his hard work is rewarded with a truck driving assignment and latrine cleaning duty, he finds solace in alcohol and—in a scene that won’t fade away anytime soon—exchanging and savouring a sever whipping with his buddy who wants to “refresh” his fading welts from a previous beating (Proteus). Escaping tedium through pain demonstrates the level of desperation in a way that resonates when any act of torture is reported.
The mix of film and video camera work of Andy Bowley and Alexandra Martinez Kondracke is wonderfully “close” to their subjects; unforgettable is the night manoeuvre scene where the light’s reflection through the eyes of the commanders creates an image of vampires in battle gear preparing to pounce on their prey.
Throughout it all, there are voice-overs from the likes of U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or nameless lackeys whose job it is to sell the military’s actions and, simultaneously, instil the desire of America’s children to join its ranks.
The unsaid but felt irony could be easily expressed on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border: imagine the results if as much energy and resources were dedicated to enticing those of the age of majority into polling stations rather than theatres of war. In this national election year for both countries, cynicism, necessarily, runs deep: those clinging to power would rather scare our youth into fighting for the homeland, than voting out those who have ruined it.