Apache Warrior Humanizes the Iraq War

The documentary Apache Warrior is billed as having been “made with 100 percent unprecedented real footage, actual attack pilot gun tapes, multiple cameras and interviews. We researched hundreds of hours of footage in order to find this true story.”

The aim, filmmakers add, is to take “the audience into the cockpit of a squadron of Apache attack helicopters during the opening salvo of what would be one of the largest invasions in U.S. and world history.”

Co-directors David Salzberg and Christian Tureaud, who previously teamed to helm Citizen Soldier and Hornet’s Nest, and producer Joshua Lang, who after leaving the Army in 2006 went to film school at Orange Coast College with a goal of making “a film to honor my unit’s difficult mission at the beginning of the Iraq war,” achieve their goal with Apache Warrior, which makes its Orange County premiere Monday as a benefit for Working Wardrobes’ VetNet program of services for military veterans.

Despite the filmmakers’ claims about the vast materials they had to work with—which I have no doubt are true—the thing that struck me while watching Apache Warrior was how the same still images were shown over and over again as the story advanced. Rather than boring me, this device somehow kept me all in. It was a brilliant stroke; I just wish I was smart enough to know why this is so.

I can recall other documentaries where similar ways of telling stories fell flat—and fast. Don’t get me started about the true war story that was based on the experiences of a filmmaker’s grandfather, complete with World War II battle scenes that I’m pretty sure were shot in a suburban tract home’s back yard.

Apache Warrior begins with introductions of the Army personnel, now retired and otherwise, who are the focus of the harrowing story that follows. Much of the set-up about training, initial meetings of crew members, the mood of the U.S. camp in Iraq before the 2003 invasion and news of the first mission are not simply recounted with current-day, talking-head interviews. Video footage from drills and desert crossings, as well as casual still images of the players in their fatigues, are expertly layered in. What’s onscreen lingers just long enough so you can soak it in, but not so long that it mucks up the story’s pace.

In announcing the beginning of military operations in Iraq, President George W. Bush explained to the American people, via an address televised live, that the goals were “to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.” Despite our feelings then and now about that war, you can’t help but recognize the danger the AH-64 Apache helicopter crews were thrust into with their first mission in Saddam Hussein country. Three or so clusters of about half a dozen helicopters each were to fly through the desert and over a city to hover just above the outskirts, where intelligence informed that pro-Saddam military operations were based. These first U.S. AH-64s were to draw enemy fire so their points of origin could be exposed for clusters of trailing helicopters that would take them out. With early memories of the Iraq war occupied by “shock and awe,” who even knew potential suicide missions such as this were even happening?

Based on what the filmmakers have said about Apache Warrior, they are most proud of the actual cockpit recordings that were retrieved from only three of the helicopters that came back, as well as the inflight video that literally gives bird’s-eye views of barren landscapes, sandblasted villages and enemy tracer rounds. Through night-vision video, those lines of light rising from the ground are beautiful. Apache pilot Captain Carrie Bruhl, who is now retired, is heard aboard her forward AH-64 calmly comparing the enemy fire to fireworks. But as the view out the cockpit windshield gets so close as to be engulfed by the light show, we—like the crew—start hearing the pings of bullets hitting metal. It’s pretty damn frightening. And then comes the sight of approaching rocket-propelled grenades.

Humanizing all of this are those same casual images from back at the camp. We get faces, usually smiling, of the folks who were put in mortal danger (including Bruhl, who is scheduled to participate in an audience Q&A after the screening with Salzberg and Tureaud). If we had seen more of this and less of the shock and awe, one wonders if more would have gotten behind the president.

Apache Warrior at Regency Lido Theatre, 3459 Via Lido, Newport Beach, (949) 673-8350. Mon., reception with free Taco Bell tacos, 5:30 p.m.; doors open, 6 p.m.; registration ends, 6:45 p.m.; screening, 7 p.m. $5.

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