The body in Ellen Spiro and Phil Donahue's documentary, "Body of War," belongs to Tomas Young, a 25-year-old soldier who was shot in Sadr City after only five days in Iraq. The body also refers to the congressmen and women who voted, in 2002, to grant the president the unilateral authority to send him there. By making the war's supporters inextricable from those who suffer because of it, Spiro and Donahue (yes, that Phil Donahue) challenge the consequences of the war.
The movie cuts between the filmmakers' time with Young, who took a bullet near the spine that left him paralyzed from the legs down, and C-SPAN footage of senators and representatives arguing for and against passing the war resolution. In 2005, Young returns to Kansas City, Mo., and marries his fiancée, Brie. But the movie intrudes with montages of the speechifying that went on in the Capitol three years earlier.
To say the least, the film is awkward, like a piece of badly assembled Ikea furniture. Still, editor Bernadine Colish weaves together all that CSPAN footage into a disturbing procedural indictment. Legislators use the same language - often the president's - to justify the rush to war. The repetition is comical until it's scary: They're parroting.
At the end of the montages, a voice off-screen announces the vote ("McCain: Aye!" "Clinton: Aye!") while a graphic tracks the tally over a shot that gazes up inside the Capitol dome. Invariably, the highlight of these sequences is Robert Byrd, the long-serving, ex-segregationist Senator from West Virginia, whose attempted filibuster gives the movie its theatricality. Byrd is frail and ferocious, but he's convinced he's right. He's also an archival discovery.
Young is a real find. His injury inspires him to speak against the war at rallies across the country, including one in Crawford, Texas, beside Cindy Sheehan, who lost her son the same day Young was shot. He's sincere. He's witty ("Supporting President Bush is like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders"). He's affable. And he's frequently exhausted, often having to interrupt a speech to slow down his spinning head or allow his fluctuating body temperature to settle down. Poignantly, the young soldier and the ancient senator seem to have corporeal diminishment in common.
With Young, the movie gets fascinatingly specific about what living with paralysis entails. For one thing, it means living without sex. Tomas and Brie seem resigned to his erectile woes, having tried many tricks in many books. And you can sense the inevitable fracture in their bond - not because of the lack sex but because of how the intimacy has shifted from the carnal to the custodial. But neither of them really ever complains.
Tomas is amazingly unflappable, even when, in a surreally moving moment, Young's mother, Cathy Smith, has to change his catheter.
"Body of War" doesn't have the dismaying sweep of other recent documentaries about the war - Alex Gibney's "Taxi to the Dark Side" and Charles Ferguson's "No End in Sight," for example. Those films travel up and down the chain of the administrative and military chains of command, explicating and questioning what went wrong. Those movies unearth a kind of cabalistic, boundless evil.
Spiro and Donahue take a more finite approach. All that conspiracy, all that evil, all that conflict get reduced to a single body and the man coping with its dysfunction. In that sense, "Body of War" has more in common with home-front films - "Coming Home" (1978) and "Born of the Fourth of July" (1989) and Kimberly Peirce's current "Stop-Loss," whose soldiers return to Texas traumatized, stressed, and emotionally disabled only to be rounded up for a second or third tour.
Such movies usually show us the women who don't fully recognize their men once they're home. "Body of War" has Smith, a tough, loving woman whose younger soldier son, Nathan, is headed to Iraq. When Young and Smith are at a rally, they pull up beside a barricade where several mothers who've lost sons in the war reach out to touch him. The moment is a strange inversion of a rock-concert scenario and among the more heartbreaking images this war has produced. It's as if those mothers are caressing a ghost.