Overview: Australian journalist Michael Ware arrived in Baghdad in 2003 as a novice reporter on a three-week assignment to cover the invasion of Iraq. He left seven years later, having gained unprecedented access to the Iraqi insurgency and American troops, as well as a myriad of demons – the after-effects of witnessing seemingly endless, horrific violence.
Examining the Iraq War and its moral consequences through the story of the rise and fall of jihadi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq and the progenitor of ISIS, ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR is a harrowing and graphic account from both sides of the war zone, as well as an illuminating window into the origins of a modern terrorist organization. This documentary is told through visceral hand-held video footage culled from hundreds of hours that journalist Michael Ware shot while reporting over the course of the war. This unique, on-the-ground view is combined with eye-opening narration for a frank, unsparing look at the Iraq War unlike any before.
Expectations: Okay, whenever a description for a film uses words like “harrowing,” “graphic,” “visceral” and “frank” you know you are in for something tough to take in. I have been watching the hot topic of combat journalism for a while now so I know what I’m in for. There is only one way to capture the shock and damage of war and that is to be right in the heart of it. Michael Ware is one of those guys and he goes deep into the belly of the beast as it raised its ugly head in the most intense fighting we have seen in long while. As to be expected he was changed as a result and this documentary may just serve as a cathartic release for him. Unfortunately, it is still up in the air on how it will affect the viewer. Of course, the trailer is as tame as it could possibly be, but brace yourself for a real hardcore look at war.
Gut Reaction: Let’s be blunt: this documentary is a tough little pill to swallow because it barrages you with a heavy dose of sensory and emotive overload. It leaves you numbed. It leaves you quite in a surprising state of being when all is said and done and it makes you wonder if that is what the soldiers and journalists feel only tenfold. Well, at least it did me.
Ware’s work hits you with a trippy often confounding narration that you try to understand a he explores the darker side to one’s psyche and soul when you are up close to the atrocities like he faced for seven years, and voluntarily one might add. Then there is even the pounding, intense score as if the content wasn’t raw enough. And then there is the contact the intimately close look of desperation, survival, brutality, carnage and death. As if witnessing death isn’t bad enough what is witnessed through this camera is sinister and diabolical. Ware, over the course of his assignment, covered it all from both sides of the war and put his life in danger over and over to get it.
I can’t dare describe too much about the many shocking things this film shows; it is clearly not for everyone. Not only is there car bombs and suicide runs shown, but so is the aftermath. Not only are bullets exchanged, but some at close range. Up close footage of execution style shots to the head and hangings make one flinch not to mention what reaction you get when the camera pulls away from a beheading. Though the American forces are not as savage they still don’t like their enemies either and the concluding moments of the documentary leaves you uncomfortable with their treatment of a dying terrorist also.
But while all that terrible imagery of war assaults you still try to hang on to Michael Ware’s words. He has seen a lot. He is brought to question his soul. His trip into darkness, as he calls it, was all consuming and he was turning savage and it changed him. It changed many including the unit he hung with in Ramadi; the unit that let a man slowly and agonizingly die.
Bonus: He is portions of an interview Michael Ware gave HBO.
HBO: When did you decide you wanted to do this project?
MICHAEL WARE: I was a writer. I wasn’t a filmmaker. I certainly didn’t go to Iraq to make a film. But once I picked up a small video camera, I quickly realized its value as a notebook because it could record the dialogue that I couldn’t when the bullets are flying and the bombs are going off. Each year when I would return to Australia to visit my family, I would dump that year’s batch of tapes into a Tupperware box under my mother’s bed. After seven years I eventually came home for good, but it wasn’t until about a year later that I actually began to start watching those tapes. It was at that point that I knew that I needed to do something.
HBO: Only the Dead gets at something beyond the specifics of a single war.
WARE: That’s exactly what we’re after. On one level it is one man’s journey through a war; you follow in my descent and come with me as I find my darkest place. On another level, it’s about the Iraq war and we witness the birth of the Islamic State. But also, in our highest ambition, it could also be seen as part of the conversation about the nature of us as human beings because in the end we all have the light and the dark within us. You know it when you see what it is that our boys in uniform have to go through, the dark place they have to get to in order to fight and survive; when you see what it is that the Iraqis have to endure, the dark choices that some of these people that we now call the Islamic State have made — I think all of that more broadly reflects upon the human condition.
HBO: Can you discuss the end of the documentary and the scene where you film a young insurgent dying? Were you aware of your silence in that moment?
WARE: I can almost tell you the exact frame that it suddenly occurred to me that I could do something and I was choosing not to. What I was trying to do was film the indifference of the soldiers, but then it occurred to me that I had become as indifferent as they were. It was a conscious choice that I made. Now, in a greater journalistic sense, the hope—you know, the desperate hope—is that by filming this one moment, you can tell a much greater story. Forget the fact we’re not there to intervene, like we spoke about. There nonetheless remains the question of your own humanity and morality. And that choice, made consciously at that moment in that farmyard, really told me about where I, in my heart, had arrived.
In Conclusion: Again, I must state that is not for everyone. This the most graphic documentary seen on HBO in a long while. We did not explore the historical and political aspects of this war and the rise of the deadly Islamic State that still terrorizes today. We didn’t bring all that up only because it wasn’t the real focus of this film. The real story here is how and why war can change a man regardless of which side you’re on. Sadly, that awful equation is still being played out in places like Paris and Brussels and who knows where next. Try to get a sense of it all if you dare by watching ONLY THE DEAD SEE THE END OF WAR.
Next Week: On 04.04 at 9:00pm HBO presents HBO Documentary Films: MAPPLETHROPE: LOOK AT THE PICTURES. We do just that as the photographic works of the late artist Robert Mapplethrope are examined as well as his life.