August 8, 2008 – Unfettered media access has not exactly been a hallmark of the Iraq war. But the surreal documentary “Full Battle Rattle,” according to its makers, unexpectedly received the full cooperation of the U.S. Army.
A keenly insightful film concerning an unusual training program for war-bound U.S. soldiers, “Full Battle Rattle” reveals much about those vague “conditions on the ground” in Iraq we often hear about. Yet this fly-on-the-wall, nonfiction feature, shot in 2006, never actually sets foot in that occupied country.
Filmmakers Tony Gerber and Jesse Moss (“Rated ‘R’: Republicans in Hollywood”) spent several weeks at a billion-dollar “virtual Iraq” built in California’s Mojave Desert. There, we see an Army battalion engage in simulations at a mock Iraqi village called Medina Wasl.
A writing team creates scenarios depicting Medina Wasl on the brink of slipping into civil war, while faux insurgents keep up pressure with well-timed surprise attacks. Iraqi Americans and Iraqi immigrants seeking citizenship pose as a variety of village characters similar to people U.S. soldiers typically deal with in Iraq. Army veterans who have done tours of duty in the war portray masked insurgents, using their combat experience to demonstrate how the enemy performs.
The whole enterprise looks like a B movie set, complete with a supporting cast that spends its downtime between scenes chatting and laughing. But the work is taken very seriously by officers, and the role-playing reflects reports from Iraq about tensions and frustrations between American soldiers and the Iraqi populace.
Gerber and Moss ended up with hundreds of hours of footage, and “Full Battle Rattle” is a high-octane viewing experience from the start. But it also shows us something of the military’s psychology and strategies involved in trying to win over the hearts and minds of a war-weary people.
It also amply captures the violent chaos that can undo such goodwill at any particular moment.