The Invisible War

2011, Movie, NR, 95 mins


As written and directed by documentarian Kirby Dick, The Invisible War sheds a public light on the crises of sexual assault and rape in the U.S. armed forces. The film delivers a sledgehammer blow to the audience, with an experience every bit as shattering and overwhelming as one might infer from the subject matter.

The documentary benefits from an ingenious and subtle narrative structure. Dick begins with an onslaught of slogan-heavy USAF propaganda films ("be all that you can be") that leave an ironic aftertaste. Then he brutally undercuts this jingoism with the cold, hard truth of military reality for many of the women (and one male participant) who walked into recruitment offices with high hopes and patriotic spirits, only to suffer from sexual violations while on duty. Speaking with great candor and yet a surprising degree of restraint, these interviewees describe the horrors that befell them. Then, as the picture rolls forward, it takes a long, sobering look at the broader issue -- the corrupt and twisted military hierarchy that makes prosecution for individual acts of sexual violence close to impossible in many cases. Dick then brings these two halves of the equation back together in the last third of the movie, as seven of the interviewees -- all courageous, headstrong young women -- valiantly attempt to fight the system with a class-action lawsuit against the Department of Defense.

This is as powerful a muckraking documentary as has ever been made for two major reasons. First: Dick and producer/co-interviewer Amy Ziering approach their subjects with an unusual degree of empathy. Participants never discuss their rapes or assaults in needlessly graphic sexual detail, nor do the filmmakers milk the interviews for emotional effect, although we do get rich and satisfying biographical profiles of the various victims that are laced with indications of how the personal violations have damaged or ruined their lives, often irreparably. These sequences radiate humanism. Also, out of consideration for the subjects, one senses that Ziering conducted many of the one-on-one exchanges with the female interviewees, perhaps because, with a woman holding the reins, this part of the documentary inquest became much less emotionally demanding for the subjects.

The film's second ticket to sublimity is the degree to which it explores the social backdrop of the crimes at hand. Dick’s research pays off here, as he succeeds at unveiling one outrageous obstacle to prosecution after another, such as the longtime responsibility of military commanders for charging staff members with felonies, and one shocking U.S. government act that says that the military itself cannot be held responsible for injurious personal acts conducted under its umbrella. If this all sounds bewildering, rest assured that it merely represents the tip of the iceberg: Dick then interpolates vexing exchanges with U.S. political figures (such as the inane Dr. Kaye Whitley, former Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office Director), who halfheartedly try to assert that the armed forces are doing everything in their power to restrain sexual assault, such as a colorful ad campaign designed to discourage rape. As one interviewee reminds us in counterpoint, the thought that a wall poster could dissuade a violent criminal from bursting into the cabin of a female recruit and raping her isn't simply unconvincing -- it is moronic.

In the final analysis, the overall feeling that one takes away from this documentary isn't simply horror over the abominations that befell the victims -- it's a sense of infuriation and a yearning for justice. On that note, it isn't surprising to learn, in a title card at the end of the film, that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta saw the movie shortly after its completion and began to take the first few steps toward legal accountability for on-duty perpetrators of sexual assault. One hopes that Panetta's actions only represent the beginning of real change. leave a comment --Nathan Southern

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