Sponsored in part by ITT and Northrop Grumman, Fighting for Life provides an in-depth look at USU, the Uniformed Services University, a medical school open to candidates from all branches of the armed forces. A target of legislators who want to build reputations for cutting "fat" out of the federal budget, USU suffers from repeated funding crises. Filmmaker Terry Sanders, a two-time Academy Award winner, set out to document the students and faculty at the university. But the war in Iraq intervened.

Shooting over a two-year period with a skeleton crew, Sanders was given access to all stages of medical care associated with the war, from field hospitals in Iraq to medical centers in Germany and the United States. Sanders and his crew capture emergency medical situations, interview doctors and nurses, and in some cases follow patients from operating rooms in Iraq to rehabilitation at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Some of the material is difficult to watch—for example, when doctors pull pieces of shrapnel from leg wounds or discuss options after a thumb amputation. The emotional toll on the medical staff is unmistakable. Some sob as they recount telephoning parents of soldiers who died on the operating table. One nurse freezes at the sight of a three-year-old Iraqi covered with burn wounds. Another tries to convince a suicidal Iraqi officer that he can lead a worthwhile life after double leg amputations. "The patients that talk to you, that's the hard part," says head nurse Cathy Martin. What is most apparent from the footage in Iraq and Germany is the dedication the medical staff has for the wounded.

Sanders and his crew are expert at building scenes from whatever shots they could grab, under extremely demanding circumstances. Material of the USU campus necessarily suffers in comparison. While the students interviewed seem talented and committed, scenes of classroom lectures, laboratory experiments and library carrels do not have the same impact as the footage from Iraq. And while several professors offer articulate explanations for their work, there is a sense that they and the filmmakers are trying to justify the existence of the university.

Fighting for Life makes no mention of the Washington Post exposé about conditions at Walter Reed in 2007, which involved grossly unsanitary rooms and inadequate patient care. On the other hand, the film does not avoid the more difficult aspects of caring for the war wounded. One doctor admits that some patients might have preferred not to survive. "Do they want to live like this?" he asks about soldiers with triple amputations. The most moving sequences in Fighting for Life concern Crystal Davis, first seen on an operating table in Iraq and later in rehabilitation at Walter Reed. Her inspiring grit and perseverance give the film an emotional spine.