Film Review: Citizen Soldier

This point-of-view documentary about an Oklahoma National Guard unit’s 2011 deployment to Afghanistan is visually kinetic but borders on propaganda.
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“Being a citizen soldier,” Corporal Eran Harrill states early on in David Salzburg and Christian Tureaud’s documentary, “we all have jobs that we have in addition to our military duties.” There have been other documentaries about National Guard soldiers serving as front-line combat personnel in the post-9/11 wars, like the exemplary 2005 series “Off to War.” But few have emphasized that double-duty existence so baldly as Citizen Soldier. As the film notes about the men in the Oklahoma National Guard unit it follows, they have civilian lives and employment, only spending a little over a month of each year on Guard duty. That is, until they’re called up to replace a regular Army unit and suddenly transition into full-time soldiers. If Salzburg and Tureaud had followed through more on this line of inquiry, they could have ended up with a more notable film.

In Citizen Soldier, the filmmakers track in jumpy fashion the deployment of this Guard unit to Afghanistan in 2011. The men of the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (the “Thunderbirds”) are introduced in standard fashion. But with only a couple of exceptions, little effort is made to individualize any of them. Harrill (also listed as a producer) presents as a fairly humble and everyday guy, as most of the men do. Sergeant Jared Colson, whose Stateside job is (appropriately) corrections officer, has a gravelly voice and a cynical yet steady manner that speaks to the long line of similarly hardnosed noncommissioned officers that have kept militaries functioning at the small-unit level. Although the filmmakers give lip service to paying tribute to these soldiers’ sacrifices, their inability to draw them out as individuals is a critical problem. That failing becomes more acute when the unit starts taking casualties.

There isn’t much in the way of preamble or context provided for the 45th's tour of duty. The driving intent here is instead more on the footage, which is jarringly intense at times. The film juts in close visually, tracking the unit’s movements with multiple cameras that provide the kind of 360-degree coverage many documentarians could only dream of. The many vertigo-inducing firefight sequences follow the soldiers as they slip and crawl with agonizing slowness (those packs and body armor aren’t light) over the mountainous terrain. Some of these moments come arguably closer to expressing some realities of combat than almost any other recent documentary. In part, that’s because the filmmakers include all that nerve-flaying downtime which then exacerbates the randomness of the eruptions of gunfire, the soldiers usually firing off into the distance at an enemy they almost never see. They also leave in the woundingly vulnerable moments when the soldiers come close to losing control in the heat and rattle of battle.

If the team behind Citizen Soldier had expanded on its stronger, more honest moments like these, they might have come up with something that could sit comfortably alongside a modern classic of the Afghanistan War reportage like Restrepo. But too often it falls back on hackneyed devices, like the cheeseball slide guitar and sub-action-flick score that keeps popping up at the wrong moments. More problematically, it fails to either expand on the intimacy that occasionally flickers to the fore or to follow through on the citizen soldier concept by showing the men adapting to life back in Oklahoma. The end result is a promising but half-realized documentary whose relentlessly upbeat and on-message tone is more akin to a recruiting video.

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