OPERATION HOMECOMING: WRITING THE WARTIME EXPERIENCENR
Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience is an extension of a project initiated by the National Endowment for the Arts to collect the writings of soldiers who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while there are reasons to be skeptical of a government-sponsored undertaking (funded in part by Boeing, Inc.!), the writing itself transcends the anti-war but pro-military propaganda.
Operation Homecoming is comprised of 11 readings. Writer-director Richard E. Robbins accompanies the poems, letters and stories with visual "re-enactments" that range from cinéma-vérité to animation to avant-garde collages. Robbins also includes interviews with the soldiers and veterans of other wars about their experiences. Profound quotes (from Plato to Ernest Hemingway) between the segments round out the picture.
Unlike other recent documentaries about Iraq, Operation Homecoming does not try to understand the war and deliberately seems to avoid the domestic political angle. (George W. Bush and his team are hardly mentioned.) The closest other film to this one was Last Letters Home (2004), which also paid tribute to the American troops in Iraq through their writing, though Operation Homecoming is less jingoistic and sentimental.
In segment after segment, Robbins emphasizes the personal and emotional aspects of the soldiers' harrowing experiences. Non-military viewers used to Hollywood depictions of war will probably be surprised how often these tough types are either scared or bored during their service. But no one should doubt the everlasting effect of the warriors' emotional battle scars. Some writings are more powerful than others (the best include Sangjoon Han's "Aftermath" and Jack Lewis's "Road Work"), yet all of them are heartfelt and well-represented by Robbins' visual depictions.
A few choices by Robbins are questionable: Why didn't the soldiers who wrote the works read them? Instead, we get overly professional renditions by Beau Bridges, Robert Duvall, Aaron Eckhart, Blair Underwood and other Hollywood hotshots. It is also problematical that mainly white males are heard. There are a few males with ethnic backgrounds and one woman interviewed, but the actual writers (and readers) are mostly the white guys. Finally, Robbins relies too much on a PBS aesthetic (he was a producer and director for PBS for many years); thus, we have the usual talking-head setups edited in point-counterpoint style, even though no one is really disagreeing with anyone else. At least Ken Burns usually has a reason for using this traditional, dull style.
Flaws aside, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience has much value, both as an artistic and historical document.