For the past fifteen years, the embedded U.S. war documentary has become a subgenre all its own, usually offering a more thorough portrait of our troops overseas than much of our media is willing or able to manage.
What makes Citizen Soldier, a portrait of Oklahoma National Guardsmen sent to Afghanistan, stand out, however, is the fact that rather than sending a director in with the military, the project uses the guardsmen’s own helmet-cam footage. And for want of a better term, this gives you a “first-person shooter” look at actual war: It’s Call of Duty with no cheats or respawns, and real-world consequences.
Paradoxically, this technique both keeps you from getting to know the soldiers better and puts you completely in their boots, understanding directly that (as one character puts it) war is boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. And any excitement at viewing a firefight from the inside becomes dread once you realize that not everyone you’re watching is going to make it.
Gore is tastefully avoided, but through the personal cameras, we twice view the final fall from within as we hear the kill shot. This alone is sufficient to sell the movie, but directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud (who previously covered this war in The Hornet’s Nest) go a bit overboard in trying to sell this as The Most Patriotic Movie Ever Made.
The press kit is nearly all glowing quotes from veterans, while the end credits list off every single National Guardsman killed in combat since 9-11, state by state. In a movie that otherwise renders the personal universal, such packaging threatens to drown out the point.
Directed by David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud
Opens August 5, AMC Empire 25