For the soldiers of Dog Company, life in Iraq is long stretches of stomach-churning anxiety, suddenly interrupted by explosions and mad bursts of confusion, injury and death. There is a shared look of raw pain that never seems to leave the faces of these young GIs as they move through a hellish landscape of bombed-out buildings, dust and caravans of Humvees heading up and down roads that seem impossible to secure.
That's the story and the dominant image of A Company of Soldiers, a searing Frontline documentary airing on PBS tonight that takes viewers inside the lives of a nine-member group of soldiers from Dog Company of the U.S. Army's 8th Cavalry Regiment.
So skillful is their use of cinema verite, fly-on-the-wall point of view as embedded correspondents that director Tom Roberts and producer Edward Jarvis create the illusion, during particularly intense moments of the film, that one is seeing the war through the eyes of the soldiers rather than watching it on a screen. It is the kind of superior filmmaking that turns the abstract into pictures and words that are personal and deeply felt.
The most powerful parts of the film are associated with the death of one of the nine soldiers with whom the filmmakers travel. During an ambush, Spc. Travis Babbitt, a gunner, is hit by enemy fire. Viewers never see Babbitt's death, only the reaction of his fellow soldiers to it - and that makes the experience even more moving.
Viewers see Capt. Jason Whiteley struggling with his emotions as he tells the group of Babbitt's death. Tears run down the cheeks of one of the younger men in the group as he furiously digs his fingers into his face as if trying to rip away the pain.
"Babbitt was a superb soldier, and he died like he should - he went out fighting," Whiteley says, his voice breaking. "We all loved him like a brother, and it's going to be very, very difficult for all of us, including me. But what we have to do now is be strong for the guys who are on the team, for each other. ... Because later on tonight, tomorrow morning, we're going to be back on that same road, we're going to be going back into another ambush."
Early the next day, they are bravely back on the road and headed into another ambush.
This one involves a land mine blowing up as the three Humvees carrying eight soldiers, an officer and the embedded filmmakers pass over. The camera jerks wildly as the blast rocks the vehicles. Soldiers scream to their comrades, "Are you OK? Are you OK?" They stop to assess the damage. One of them is not OK - a gunner sitting atop one of the vehicles was hit by shrapnel in the ear, and his eardrum has burst. Even as the assessment is made, two sergeants are screaming to try and get the convoy moving again, because they fear the group is now an easy target.
Included in the screaming are expletives - the words that led to controversy last week when PBS refused to endorse a Frontline version of the film that included 13 expletives.
PBS instead sent its 349 member stations a version of the film with the expletives deleted. The only way stations could get the uncut version was to sign forms freeing PBS of any responsibility for fines that might be levied by the government for airing the words.
In the context of explosions, conflicting commands, panicked calls to comrades, injuries and death, the expletives seem as natural as blood and sand. What seems unnatural is PBS trying to take such words out of the soldiers' mouths.
Along with several other stations that have shown more gumption than their network, MPT and WETA will air the uncut version tonight at 10. Good for them.
Good for us, too. A Company of Soldiers is the kind of reality that TV should be delivering.