Off to War

"Very Good"

Off to War Review


There's so many stock scenes from the war in Iraq that one would think you'd become inured to them, but then you see them in a new light and that all changes. The brave but ambivalent soldiers, the sobbing wives, unprotected vehicles, a baffling conflict; it's all up there on the screen in Brent and Craig Renaud's searing documentary Off to War, painful like a fresh wound.

The Arkansas-born Renaud brothers followed the 39th Brigade of the Arkansas National Guard for 18 months starting from the time in October 2003 when they were notified that their unit was being deployed to Iraq. The film focuses on a small group of Guardsmen from the same community - 57 men in the brigade are from the small town of Clarksville. It's an eclectic bunch, ranging from a black minister to an older turkey farmer, a former gang member wanting to impress his dad (serving in the same unit) and a couple of hard-drinking buddies looking for some excitement. Structurally, it couldn't be simpler, as the Renauds insert themselves into the lives of these men as they start to train up for their deployment and come to grips with what it'll mean to be away from home for 18 months (6 months in Ft. Hood, Texas, and 12 in Iraq). The minister's marriage is quickly strained by the distance, while a salesman talks matter-of-factly about all the time he'd spent building up his territory and that he'll be unemployed when he returns.

In general, they're a patriotic and religious bunch, but blue state residents will likely be surprised to hear how disgruntled many of them are about the deployment. Troubles with work and family aside, there's a constant refrain of "why?" mixed in among the gung-ho proclamations uttered by the younger Guardsmen (at least a couple of whom still equated Iraq with al Qaeda and see the war as direct retribution for 9/11). As they get closer to actual combat and deal with being second-tier soldiers using outmoded equipment, a vaguely disquieting lack of purpose seems to creep up. For all their training, nothing actually prepares them for being in Iraq (one says, "I've been in Baghdad for ten minutes, and already I hate it"). And all the while there are gut-wrenching scenes showing the purgatory that the families back in Arkansas have to dwell in, watching the news, waiting for a phone call or letter, and fretting.

The filmmakers have a determinedly unobtrusive style, giving their subjects room to speak their minds. There's hardly a point of view here, unless showing the heartbreaking ravages of war can be said to make a point. The Renauds have an obvious affection for their subjects, presenting them as complicated people, not props to be used to make easy points about the war from one side or the other.

If Off to War seems embryonic and unfinished, that's because there's additional footage that will show on cable sometime this year, following the Guardsmen through their whole year in-country (this film only goes through their first month in-country), and so there's plenty of unanswered questions and background information still to be filled in. Within the confines of this limited scope, however, this is about as good a documentary as one could realistically ask for, showing what war means not to professional soldiers, but ordinary men caught between wanting to do the right thing and not being entirely sure what that is.

Reviewed at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival.

Born to kill.



Off to War

Facts and Figures

In Theaters: Friday 22nd April 2005

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

IMDB: 8.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Brent Renaud, Craig Renaud

Producer: Jon Alpert

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