It might have been nice to lead off this review of "Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq" with the documentary's single most heart-breaking moment. But HBO's hourlong portrait of 10 wounded veterans is just too jammed up with emotional peaks to single out only one. If you watch this powerful special, which features James Gandolfini conducting the interviews, you will have a big fat lump in your throat from start to finish.
The phrase "alive day" refers to the day these veterans narrowly escaped death. But the documentary, which premieres tomorrow night at 10:30, doesn't deliver rah-rah men and women who are just grateful to be alive, etc. Nothing about the show smacks of party line or political spinning. On a quiet stage in an off-Broadway theater, a respectful Gandolfini inspires the interviewees to explore the ambiguities and trage dies of their postwar situations. Shorn of arms, legs, pieces of brain, and a sense of psychological well-being, the veterans speak surprisingly honestly about how they feel.
Most of those selected for "Alive Day Memories" are able to recall the moment they were injured, and talk about their fight to return to some kind of normalcy. After 46 surgeries and 16 months in the hospital, now living without the better part of one leg and full use of his hands, Marine Corporal Jacob Schick notes that "the fight doesn't stop when you get home." Army Lieutenant Dawn Halfaker, missing an arm and a shoulder, fears that her injury is changing her desire to have children. And Army Private Dexter Pitts describes his life with post-traumatic stress disorder: "I don't feel welcome anywhere in the civilian world."
Marine Lance Corporal Michael Jernigan was blinded by an explosion, and he hauntingly describes his violent nightmares upon returning from Iraq. His sparkling fake eye speaks even louder of his pain, though; it's laced with the gold from his wedding ring from a marriage destroyed, he says, because of his injury.
The difficult sequence profiling Marine Sergeant Eddie Ryan requires that his mother appear too, to speak for him. Ryan took two bullets in the skull, and the resulting traumatic brain injury has left him mentally impaired. He can sing the Marines' Hymn, which he does proudly, and he can rub his chest to symbolize giving Gandolfini a piece of his heart. But he can't think or speak clearly. We see footage of Ryan clowning and dancing in the barracks before his injury, and that Ryan hardly resembles the man in the chair before us. His mother's devotion is profound.
Most of the interviews are buttressed with home-video clips from before the veterans' alive day, and then footage of them recuperating in the hospital and resuming their lives with their spouses, children, or friends. But the most stunning pieces of footage are those of the exploding bombs that caused the injuries, most of them released by insurgents. As we see images of Army Specialist Crystal Davis's truck going up in smoke, we can hear the cameramen praising Allah in the background. The sound is as arresting as anything in this film.
"Alive Day Memories," which was executive produced by Gandolfini, points out that, thanks to advances in medicine, 90 percent of those Americans who are wounded in Iraq survive. The 10 injured soldiers we meet represent the merest fraction - 10 out of some 27,100. But, thanks to the simple, direct approach of "Alive Day Memories," these 10 men and women are able to convey an indelible sense of the hope, despair, depression, joy, fear, and heroism of those who now struggle alongside them.