It always looks so neat, clean — pristine even — in combat movies or in TV news coverage.
The grainy video shows the guided bomb or missile hurtling straight into its target — a direct hit.
The commandos charge into action, squeezing off rounds into “enemy combatants,” somehow avoiding “collateral damage.”
And the soldiers? Clean cut, brave, patriotic and all about “the mission,” Semper Fi and all that.
Military myth-making dies hard in “Combat Obscura,” perhaps the most unfiltered account of American boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Miles Lagoze was a Marine Corps combat videographer, shooting combat and off-duty on-base footage for Marine Corps videos, Armed Forces Network and American TV “pool coverage” of our men and women fighting overseas.
But Lagoze, in titling his movie with a pun on “camera obscura” (a primitive pinhole camera with a tiny field of view), points out that the sanitized and controlled “official” version of what happens in a war zone, is wildly inaccurate.
With a small RCA camera not unlike one a lot of newspaper journalists like me were issued at that time (2011-12), Lagoze shot on-message footage that turned up on CNN and other places.
“We filmed what they wanted, but then we kept shooting,” he relates on an opening credit to “Combat Obscura.” And so he did, and with that footage, a lot of the myth-making and image-varnishing that the “official” record took on, gets dashed to pieces.
The myth of the “surgical strike” disappears in a flash, a cloud of smoke and BOOM just across the village from where Lagoze and the Marines he was with were calling in artillery fire.
“Was that not the WRONG building?”
“That WAS the wrong building! Yeah BOY!”
Profane hoots and hollers all around.
The Marines curse the natives in English, like generations of Jarheads and GIs before them, curse words the Afghans don’t understand.
“Why you so angry? Cheer up? ” jeering at the locals, leering at underage Afghan girls.
“Come over HERE kids. We wanna have a rock fight with you!”
Hearts and minds are thus “won” in a combat zone. Well, that, and games of soccer with kids which the Marines are almost sure to lose.
Soldiers stand-off from an Afghan man as they make him strip, at gunpoint, to see if he’s armed and dangerous — not uncalled for, and nothing wrong with that.
But admitting, “Well, we can’t really torture people” maybe hints that there are guys who will cross that line. Jokingly “painting” a kid with a laser sight for laughs?
“You’re not recording THAT, are you?”
A couple of guys start checking an enemy combatant’s body “just like a deer,” rolling the man over, pointing to the bullet wounds.
Only, “He didn’t have a gun.”
“This his shop? Oh man, we killed a shopkeeper.”
Time for quick thinking. Let’s move the body.
“This is no good for anybody to see.”
Off-duty, we watch hashish crumbled into cigarettes, a Pringles chip can turned into a bong.
“Luckily for us, Afghanistan’s a hash farm!”
Off-camera, Lagoze jokes, “I’m gonna put it in the movie!” Which he does.
There’s blurry action of Lagoze and whoever he is following that day caught in “the adrenaline rush” of firefights, shouts of “Sniper SNIPER,” men graphically wounded in the head, “gut shot,” shouts into the radio of “We’ve got a sucking chest wound, here!” Alarm all around when a comrade is hit, all efforts re-centering around keeping him alive until the airlift out arrives.
The men themselves don’t have their faces blurred, though you’d have to know who you were looking for to positively ID these combat veterans from seven years ago in the footage. Or post stills to Facebook.
Lagoze struggles with the men he has to sit down and talk to on camera, and those who don’t “get” the process.
“Get the f— outta my shot. I’m interviewing him.”
Soldiers recite rote quotes about mission, duty, the work, etc., with Lagoze begging, “Could you maybe say it in your own words?”
All that said, “Combat Obscura” is no more “negative” a portrayal of infantry life than the first modern cinema verite account of fighting men in action and on R&R. “The Anderson Platoon” was filmed during the Vietnam War, and many combat documentaries that have followed stuck to its mix of violent action, the tedium of being “in country” and the bizarre things that happen in “The Fog of War.”
An image from that 1960s movie that sticks with me is that of a chopper accident in a drop zone. No enemy fire, just a pilot’s miscalculation of how close that palm tree was, and CRASH — injuries, the works.
War is like that, that film, “Restrepo” and scores of lesser-known documentaries point out. It’s messy, it’s tense, guys are “over it” in a hurry and tend to be over-the-top when they’re drinking or smoking, rapping or dancing back in camp.
“Surgical strikes” are, like neat, conclusive firefights with a guerilla force any where in the world, a myth.
And the soldiers? Not clean-cut, All American “squared-away killers,” as one Marine confesses to the camera with a grin. “These are the most messed up people I’ve ever been around.”
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Credits: Directed by Miles Lagoze. An Oscilloscope Labs release.
Running time: 1:10