There are a number of Iraqi villages 40 miles outside of Barstow, California -- 13 of them, to be exact -- constructed by the U.S. military to precisely replicate conditions in the country and serve as a final stopover point for troops en route overseas. The villages are inhabited by real Iraqi exiles who live day-to-day as actors within the simulation. U.S. soldiers, many of whom have fought in Iraq, play the insurgents. The film's directors, who embedded themselves in a battalion-in-training over a two-week session, walk into a scenario rife with obvious tension -- the events may be simulations, but the fact that many of the play-acting Iraqis harbor doubts about America's presence in Iraq or guilt about miming the real struggles of their families and friends at home is quite real. In Medina Wasl, the faux-town depicted in the film, there exist at least three or four documentaries waiting to be excavated. Full Battle Rattle is the one Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss chose to direct.
Now, there are essentially two ways to go about directing a war-in-progress documentary like this: the polemical, opinion-heavy way (think Michael Moore) or the laissez-faire, snapshot-of-a-moment way. Full Battle Rattle strongly favors the second. The extremely complex scenario is cut to a curt 85 minutes, and while there's plenty of insight into the minds of the soldiers and Iraqis, the details of the simulation -- and by proxy the Iraq War -- remain mysterious and muddled.
The film gets its emotional weight from the parallels between the scenario and reality -- we're constantly reminded by the soldiers' grim expressions that in two weeks the bullets and mortar are going to be real -- but the "why" behind the film's beautifully rendered action sequences remain opaque. I'd love to know how the U.S. Army distinguishes between terrorists and civilians (or at least how it perceives itself doing so) or understand the rationale behind all-too-common civilian casualties, but while both issues arise in the film, neither is explored in depth.
Military intelligence in Full Battle Rattle seems to come mainly from the role-playing news reporters (a holdover from real life whose purpose here I fail to see -- is it necessary for soldiers to watch video highlights of their own actions?). The battalion's commander, on the verge of leading his troops into a real war zone, holds stilted press conferences with the Medina Wasl mayor, and within the two weeks of the simulation breaks ground on a civic project for the village. Is this what happens after two weeks of action in Iraq? There must be more going on here, but no details of how the soldiers plan on actually finding and stopping the insurgency are shared with the camera.
The near-complete failure of the battalion, who suffer substantial casualties by the end and leave the village in what would be ruins, is compounded by the fact that we never really learn exactly went wrong. Group leader Lt. Col. McLaughlin surveys the tally of wounded and dead from his two-week stint in Medina Wasl like a bad restaurant check and accepts it without argument. There's little reason to think the soldiers will fare better in real life, and, as we learn at the end, they don't. At the film's conclusion, the soldiers we've come to know are simply being shipped off to the real war. Maybe Gerber and Moss are doing us a favor by focusing on the absurdity and "black humor" of the situation. Despite the best efforts and intentions of the soldiers in the film, it's possible that fully disclosing the clueless nature of the military might be even more depressing. The Iraqi and Iraqi-American role-players, those smart enough or lucky enough to leave Iraq, seem to be doing well though -- they're the only ones who don't have to go back.