Most television and movie documentaries about past battles follow a fairly predictable format. They consist of some combination of film and/or video footage, narration, and interviews with survivors of the battle. There isnít anything wrong with this, simply because for the most part archival footage and interviews are all the tools that documentary film makers have had. But technology has given film makers new tools that werenít available even a few years ago. Now the History Channel has seized on the possibilities of modern computer animation combined with detailed and realistic reenactment to help tell the story of one of the most remarkable military actions of recent times, the assault on Fallujah by American Marines and soldiers in November of 2004.
Written, directed, and produced by Tony Long, Shootout: D-Day: Fallujah uses all of the traditional tools of documentary film making, and combines them with state of the art computer graphics to help the audience visualize the fight for Fallujah in a kind of detail that used to impossible. Indeed, Long combines his actual combat footage with reenactments that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. The results are striking. In the past, a map of the battle would simply have shown a map of the city with arrows drawn on it to show the movement of troops. Long gives us a 3D view of the city showing individual buildings in considerable detail.
But Longís most remarkable achievement is what he shows us about the men who made those arrows move. Long interviews Marine veterans of the battle and lets them tell their stories in their own words. But he also shows us meticulously researched reenactments of the deadly, intense, room by room gunfights that the men are describing. At times he uses computer graphics to show a freeze frame of where each man was standing, allowing the audience a virtual shot by shot breakdown of squad level actions. The effect of all this is show to the audience what news reports of the battle mostly did not; the chaos and stark terror of combat in an urban maze where the next street might be an ambush and the next room a deathtrap.
One could fairly ask whether or not itís honest for Long to use reenactment as tool. Doesnít this make D-Day: Fallujah a form of fiction? In fact, the opening credits explicitly say that the program contains reenactments of the battle, and the actual reenactments, although quite good, are fairly easy to spot. Long isnít trying to pull the wool over anyoneís eyes. Heís not making fiction, heís using illustrations, and the fact the illustrations are untraditional and based on new technology doesnít make them any less legitimate.
It should be noted here that D-Day Fallujah is part of an ongoing series on the History Cannel called Shootout that examines police and military shootouts in this same level of extreme detail. While watching D-Day Fallujah your reviewer saw an advertisement for an upcoming episode that will deal with a small unit action in the Pacific in World War II. Consult your local listings.
Shootout: D-Day: Fallujah contains some amazing stories of the courage, ingenuity, and self sacrifice shown by the soldiers and Marines who took Fallujah. The mainstream media, which has done an appalling job of covering this war, has often dwelt on the importance of high technology and smart bombs. Tony Long has given us a valuable reminder that the riflemen of the Army and Marine Corps remain the smartest and deadliest weapons in Americaís arsenal.