Film Review: The Invisible War

Convincing look at how the military ignores rape and sexual assault within its ranks.

The Department of Defense recorded over 3,000 cases of sexual assault in the military in 2011. According to Department statistics, over 19,000 cases weren't reported at all, and only 191 convictions were obtained. The Invisible War documents some cases of assault while calling for wholesale change in a military culture that tends to ignore rape when it isn't blaming the victim.

The known facts behind military sexual assault are both alarming and depressing. Alarming because there are no real safeguards for the victims of assault. Commanding officers decide if cases will be prosecuted. According to the filmmakers, a third of servicewomen were too afraid to report assaults because their commanding officers were friends of the rapists. A quarter of the time, the commanding officer was the rapist.

And what's depressing about the military's reaction to sexual assault is that it seems out of date by at least 50 years. The Sexual Assault and Prevention Office offers public-service announcements ("Ask her when she's sober" was one typical theme) and posters that proclaim, "Sexual assault is preventable." Former SAPO director Dr. Kaye Whitley calls for "bystander intervention" to prevent assaults.

Many of the soldiers interviewed reveal that the investigations into their assaults were worse than the rapes. Soldiers were told they "asked for it," some were charged with adultery, and a few suffered long-term medical consequences that the Veterans Administration refused to cover.

The story that The Invisible War shows is a critical one that demands attention. The film itself is somewhat of a mixed bag. Interviews with assault victims make up most of the footage, and they are devastating both in their individual details and in their cumulative effect. But they can be difficult, if not exhausting, to watch. Director Kirby Dick's decision to include so many jump-cuts and bad sound edits doesn't help.

Dick and producer Amy Ziering also interviewed retired officers, journalists and politicians who often seem to be stating the obvious—i.e., rape is bad. The film goes into greater detail with some victims, notably Kori Cioca and Trina McDonald, showing them at home with their families.

The impact of so many soldiers giving so many accounts of similar events—raped, drugged, beaten, threatened—provokes both outrage and helplessness. But The Invisible War basically makes its case in its first ten minutes, then repeats it for another hour.

As a filmmaker, Dick is more passionate and tenacious than intellectual. In earlier documentaries like This Film Is Not Yet Rated, he relied on too many factual short cuts and grandstanding stunts. Here, he can't resist making ironic jokes with archival footage and ambushing Dr. Whitley for an easy "gotcha" moment.

A title informs viewers that as a result of seeing this film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has ordered changes in how commanding officers prosecute sexual-assault cases. It is a step in the right direction, although The Invisible War suggests the military still has a long way to go to protect its soldiers.