Eye For Film >> Movies >> Citizen Soldier (2016) Film Review
Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode
Talk to soldiers who have served in Afghanistan and they'll express, almost universally, a very low opinion of dramatic films about that experience. If you want to see a film that gets closer to the mark, they'll tell you, it has to be documentary. It's probably hard to get closer than Citizen Soldier, a film whose war footage comes solely from embedded military camera operators and soldiers' own helmet cams. The result, however, is something so personal that it may prove more difficult for some viewers to connect with.
First up, there's the obvious fact that anything produced by the military will inevitably have a certain bias. The heavy involvement of the soldiers themselves in shaping the film means it's not subtle in its praise of their unit and of the National Guard more generally. The musical choices would appear to be their own and range from cheesy metal to heavily sentimental fare. That said, this in itself gives the film a kind of honesty. Its cards are on the table from the outset. It's also refreshing to see a piece which, without any academic talk about PTSD or the horrors of war, illustrates the adjustment problems many soldiers face and the emotional and moral challenges with which their profession confronts them. Like generations who have walked this path in the past, across continents, they will spend the rest of their lives looking for answers.
This is also a refreshing film because it's told entirely from their perspective. They're mostly working class guys, some of them not that hot on life skills, there to follow orders, to be grunts of the frontline - yet their intelligence and self awareness comes through clearly, along with the camaraderie that makes it bearable and creates enormous emotional risk. Moments in which they're easily cast as the good guys, befriending villagers, adopting a puppy, are mingled with moments where they acknowledge the cost of that, talking about the corrupt state of Afghanistan and how this makes it impossible to trust anyone. But talk is only part of the film. The rest is visceral action.
Just as there's a difference between watching a CGI action film and one that contains genuine, dangerous stunt work, there's a difference between watching a simulated film about war and seeing people actually get shot at. This has often been a weakness in documentary because real life gun battles are far harder to follow than fictionalised ones, but Citizen Soldier uses that confusion as an asset. The constant conversation between the men, mingled with snatches of after-the-fact narration, keeps us focused in situations where it's impossible to tell where gunfire is coming from, and we get a real sense of what it might feel like to be trapped behind a tiny boulder on a hillside targeted by machine guns. Ducking, running, scaling a cliff in desperation, all of it is rendered immediate by the first person perspective. Of course, as the soldiers readily acknowledge, a lot of boring bits have been edited out, but long sequences of fight and flight are delivered just so. Importantly, they capture not only the terror of these situations but also the thrill that is part of what persuades some soldiers to return.
Many viewers complain that unsteady cameras make them feel queasy. This film is much easier to watch than most in that regard, because these are people who know how to carry themselves; and given the nature of their equipment, the quality of the footage is surprisingly high. It's well edited to create a film that tells the soldiers' story well, and for that, many small sins can be forgiven.Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2016