Film Review: Danger CloseWar reporter Alex Quade's embed in Afghanistan and Iraq produced extraordinary insider footage of combat missions, and her boots-on-the-ground video is an important historical record. But her documentary jumps all over the place as much as she did.
She's courageous—you've got to give her that. Combat reporter Alex Quade has been covering war zones since 1998, initially with CNN and later freelance, and won Edward R. Murrow Awards for her film company's documentary shorts "Chinook Down" (2013) and "Horse Soldiers of 9-11" (2015). Her first feature, Danger Close, offers her remarkable night-vision footage of U.S. Special Forces as they bust open doors, take prisoners and come under fire in Iraq, and she gives us equally remarkable footage of those same soldiers conversing easily with her about the basic mechanics of their tasks. In fact, the film is unabashedly on their side, and if it doesn't give larger context or perspective to their mission, it's not that kind of documentary—the everyday perils of soldiers is a fine topic in itself.
What kind of documentary it is, however, seems hard to discern. It's not really about giving a well-rounded portrait of the soldiers, since we don't see any of their day-to-day life outside their missions—eating, trying to relax, doing laundry or whatever—and except for one fallen warrior that much of the movie focuses on, we don't really get to know anyone here except as largely interchangeable drones methodically performing combat duties. Nor is it really about the job of a war correspondent, though it flirts with that idea and Quade gives great tidbits of the practicalities—but no more than that and, again, there's no context: Is she getting special access that other combat reporters don't? If so, how? In across-the-table interview segments she says she's freelance, spending her own money on travel and other expenses, but who is she doing it for? Is she actively reporting? Or just gathering footage for her company's documentaries? In short, who is she serving: the news audience or the military?
"It's not that I have a purpose but it's that I have this huge responsibility," Quade says in an interview segment. "I have a debt to pay back to these guys. I have to tell their stories." And yes, telling their stories is important. But no, the only debt one has is to one's readers. Once you get enamored with your subject, as she appears to be, you lose objectivity. You would never mistake Danger Close for a Ken Burns or PBS documentary: There's a montage of an outpost's construction, for example, set to a veritable James Bond theme song. Likewise, there's an inappropriately upbeat rock number as soldiers sift through garbage and use ground radar looking for weapons caches. These aren't cheery jobs, and artificially making them seem like bouncy fun-time is just odd.
The one narrative thread the movie does offer is about Staff Sergeant Rob Pirelli, an engineer instrumental in the construction of the aforementioned outpost in dangerous Diyala Province, Iraq, on the border with Iran. It eventually was named after Pirelli following his tragic death by sniper fire on August 15, 2007, and a chunk of the film covers Quade's visit with his family in Franklin, Mass., and vowing to return to the outpost and bring them back images of their son's work. It's a noble task with no guarantee of success, and for about a month in November and December 2008, Quade hopscotches from Nasiriyah, Iraq, to Baghdad, to Camp Taji, to Forward Operating Base Warhorse and to FOB Cobra as she attempts to fulfill her promise.
To her credit, Quade wrestles with that notion of whether she's too close to her subject. She's admirably straightforward about being inside an armored vehicle during combat and the gunner above her running out of ammo, with no one else available to hand him more. Quade talks about thinking she might be crossing a line from journalist to combatant if she cuts the strap holding the fresh ammo and hands it to the gunner—which she quickly decides to do, in mesmerizing footage. Yet while she discusses the moral and ethical choice she had to make, she doesn't address the elephant in the tank: There's no moral or ethical issue about acting in self-defense—reporters are allowed to do so when their lives are at stake. If self-defense wasn't at issue, if the gunner were only firing without anyone firing back, then one could make a very good case she indeed crossed a line.
Of course, Monday-morning quarterbacking is easy—virtually no one writing about this film will ever have been in life-or-death combat situations and there's no way of knowing how we'd act or whether we could even have known if self-defense were at stake; better safe than sorry. And while this kind of post-game analysis needs to take place, it doesn't affect the fact that: Dude! She was in a frickin' armored vehicle in combat in Iraq! And she brought back video of it! She also brought back footage of, among other things, herself inside a helicopter convoy in which the chopper she originally was to be on was shot down, with all seven crewmembers killed.
Alex Quade is a great combat reporter, no question. How great a documentary producer she is, is a separate thing. Danger Close likely will play particularly well in red states, where issues about perspective or well-rounded portrayals of soldiers or how Quade gets special access probably won't be raised. If that's the audience, Quade serves it well.
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