Monday, March 03, 2008

Friday Fight for Life

Sometimes, proceeds from special CDs or books have been donated to charitable organizations, but it seems quite rare for films to donate a part of their tickets sales. This is one of several reasons why Fighting for Life (trailer here) should not get lost in the shuffle of new releases when it opens in New York this Friday. American Film Foundation will donate ten percent of ticket sales of Fighting to the Bob Woodruff Family Fund, a 501(c)3 dedicated to assisting wounded servicemen with traumatic brain injuries (TBI). It is a fitting cause for the filmmakers of Fighting, a documentary about American military medical officers and the Uniformed Services University (USU) which trained a full quarter of the ranks.

The film itself is well worth seeing on its own merits. Shot by Academy-Award winner Terry Sanders, Fighting profiles true heroes of the American military—those fallen on the battlefield and the men and women dedicated to the healing them. If nothing else, viewers will be struck by the quality of the officers in the medical corps.

No doctor seen in the film comes across as a “House” and many of those serving at Ramstein A.F.B. in Germany seem particularly empathetic. Their patients typically do not stay long. They either stabilize them to travel to Walter Reade for long term care or perform the heartbreaking task of notifying a soldier’s family. Col. Rhonda Cornum explains:

“We don’t really get a lot of feedback. When we do get some, it is almost always an uplifting story, because you send somebody on . . . when they first came you thought: ‘man, I didn’t think this guy would make the flight, much less make it to tomorrow.’ Like the girl who walked out and got married, that gives you strength for another month.”

Each doctor interviewed in the film is indeed a graduate of USU, and we see the campus from the perspective of incoming students. The medical school provides unique battlefield simulation training for military doctors and also supports research projects designed to combat anthrax and other forms of weaponized bacterial agents. However, there were several attempts by the Clinton administration to close USU, successfully countered by the efforts of Sen. Inouye (D-HI) and others on the Hill. Bernadine Healy’s observation is worth noting in passing that had the Clinton attempt to close USU in 1997 been successful, its final class would have entered service shortly after 9-11.

As for bias in the film, the filmmakers scrupulously avoid issues surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom. No commentator interrupts the action for a tirade against President Bush. The closest thing to a partisan slip might be the Springsteen song used by permission over the credits. Yet despite their nonpartisan efforts, it is difficult not to find the actions of the American military noble, as documented in Fighting. Particularly moving is the case of Omar, a three and a half year old Iraqi boy with thirty percent body burns, courtesy of Islamist terrorists. He becomes the focus of the tremendous care and compassion of the American military medical system, including some doctors and nurses visibly disturbed by the nature of his attack.

While Fighting only spends limited time with each doctor, it does focus on the rehabilitation of one soldier: Army Specialist Crystal Davis. What we see of her recovery and that of other Iraq veterans is inspiring. Lt. Col. Beth Ewing, RN probably best captures the spirit of the film when she says: “It’s a great mission to be on the life-saving end of things.”

Sanders, probably best known for Maya Lin: a Clear Strong Vision, had tremendous access to service personnel operating under extraordinary conditions. The drama that comes from those circumstances is very real. It opens in New York Friday at the Quad and in D.C. and Bethesda on the 14th. Again, tickets support the Woodruff Foundation, as well as the film.