The invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration in 2003 became something of a flashpoint for American filmmakers, especially among the politically-minded. Like the relationship of 70’s cinema to the Vietnam War, much of Hollywood’s cinematic output during the mid-aughts could arguably be interpreted as some kind of reflection of our divided feelings towards the conflict. This mood wasn’t new to director David O. Russell; he had been grappling with our complicated relationship with the region since for quite some time– at the very least since 1999’s THREE KINGS. That film– an absurdist comedy disguised in action fatigues that concerns three soldiers in Operation Desert Storm going AWOL to hunt for Saddam Hussein’s secret stash of gold bullion– gained newfound relevance in the wake of President George W. Bush’s shock-and-awe campaign to unseat the Iraqi dictator and install a permanent democracy. Ever the astute capitalists, Warner Brothers drew up plans to re-release THREE KINGS back into theaters with some kind of additional component linking it to the current conflict (1). Russell also saw an opportunity here, but making changes to the movie was simply out of the question. Instead, he proposed SOLDIERS PAY— a short documentary that would explore the complex sentiments about the Iraq War as told by the servicemen and women who actually lived it.
Taking its name from the William Faulkner novel of the almost-same name (in subtly omitting the apostrophe from “Soldier’s Pay”, Russell changes the intent of the phrase entirely), SOLDIERS PAY unfolds in a series of unadorned talking head testimonials from soldiers running the spectrum of opinion. Whereas most documentaries of this nature aim to convince the viewer of an underlying conviction, SOLDIERS PAY is simply content to conversate with its subjects. Russell and his co-director Tricia Regan capture the piece on consumer-grade, standard-definition digital video, employing footage from the front lines only sparsely in a bid to emphasize the soldiers’ testimonials. The cumulative effect is a sprawling, yet compact, oral history of a controversial campaign that abstains from arriving at a complete ideological conclusion. Indeed, Russell’s own sentiments are best expressed in a quote he made around the time of the film’s release: “Every Iraqi I know is glad that Saddam is gone… is Iraq better off without Saddam? Yes. Is the world better off with this war? Not sure, don’t think so” (1).
SOLDIERS PAY is very much an appropriate companion piece to THREE KINGS, to the extent that Russell even finds a real-life anecdote similar to the treasure hunt plot of his fictional feature. The film also provides Russell an opportunity to invoke his background in political activism– he had hoped to release the film before the 2004 Presidential Election, desiring to make something of a difference in a decision that was largely seen as a referendum on America’s foray into Iraq. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers got cold feet from the controversy surrounding the piece and dumped it at the last moment (2). Russell eventually got his wish when IFC picked up the rights and aired it on the eve of the election (1), but whatever immediate difference he hoped to make was negated by Bush’s decisive re-election. He may have lost the battle, but he had gained crucial ground in the war for America’s hearts and minds– and he did it by documenting several new narratives to counter the government-pushed false one that led us to war in the first place.
SOLDIERS PAY is currently available via the Youtube embed above.