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Review: The Invisible War (2012)

The Invisible War (2012)

Directed by: Kirby Dick

Premise: A documentary about sexual assault in the United States military.

What Works: As depicted in The Invisible War, sexual assault is rampant in the United States armed forces. Relying on statistics from the military, the picture reveals that twenty percent of female veterans are sexually assaulted while serving and over 3000 women and men reported sexual assault in 2009. Given that eighty-percent of assault survivors do not report their attacks, this is an enormous pool of victims. The Invisible War demonstrates the breadth of the problem and puts a human face on it with testimonials from members of all branches of the armed services. Dealing with sexual assault in film can be difficult because it can easily and unintentionally become exploitative. But the filmmakers of The Invisible War handle the subject well. The Invisible War was directed by Kirby Dick, a filmmaker who often addresses hot-button issues involving large institutions. In This Film is Not Yet Rated Dick criticized the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America, Twist of Faith addressed the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, and Outrage examined closeted homosexual politicians who forward anti-gay legislation. This makes Kirby Dick an effective filmmaker for this topic. The movie is unsparing in its exploration of the breadth of the sexual assault problem and its impact on the victims. Director Kirby Dick is also known for being somewhat irreverent and provocative in his filmmaking techniques but in The Invisible War the filmmaker takes a direct but sensitive approach. The subject matter and its attendant facts are difficult enough to digest without unnecessary theatricality and so the straightforward presentation of facts and testimonials from victims, former service people, and experts is effective and makes the issue palatable. But beyond recounting individual horror stories and making the audience witness to the personal traumas, The Invisible War also examines the military’s culture of rape. This film is especially infuriating as it establishes the military’s historical pattern of widespread abuse and its lackluster response to the issue. In this regard, one of the boldest and most effective things that the filmmakers do is to address how sexual predation is sheltered and abuse is institutionalized. As wrenching as the recounts of assault are to listen to, it is the re-victimization of these people (and in some cases their families) by the institution that is most startling. It reveals a cruelty and disregard for human dignity that is unbecoming not only of our collective image of the military but of our society as a whole. That neglect goes beyond the armed forces and the filmmakers of The Invisible War demonstrate how the system of victimization impacts civilian life. This is one of the picture’s most powerful statements, as it makes clear that the topic of this film is not just about the military; it is about all of us and the culture we live in.

What Doesn’t: Watching The Invisible War is a grim experience and reactionary viewers may be tempted to dismiss the film as anti-military agitprop. While the film does not portray the military in a positive light, what this film has to say is important and deserves fair consideration and a robust public debate. American culture is such that we revere the armed forces, at least superficially, to such an extent that any criticism of the military is often hastily attacked or ignored. What The Invisible War asks the audience to do is get past the deified public image of the military to see its human and institutional failings. This is the filmmaker’s most important and subversive act but it risks falling on deaf ears in the current political climate.

DVD extras: Commentary track, extended interviews, and featurettes.

Bottom Line: The Invisible War is a heartbreaking film but it is also extremely important. This is a movie that deserves to be seen by both military and civilian audiences as it raises fundamental questions about who we are as a country.

Episode: #417 (December 2, 2012)