Michael Ware is a brave – if slightly insane – individual. That much is clear as you watch him shadow militants and run headlong into fire fights, with nothing but his camera to hand. He exudes the brand of charming insanity we’ve come to associate with Australians, but instead of riding killer waves or poking alligators, he seeks his thrills in warzones. Only the Dead documents Ware’s time in Iraq as a correspondent for Time magazine following the 2003 invasion, primarily using footage filmed by the journalist himself on his camcorder. The footage is incredible – both in terms of what it shows and the danger Ware puts himself through to get it – and permits none of the censorship we’re accustomed to.
Executions, child soldiers, suicide bombs, the dead and the dying – none of this is spared the viewer in what is a very effective demonstration of the horrors of war. Only the Dead’s main flaw is its insistence on providing both a subjective account of Ware’s Heart of Darkness-style psychological journey and an objective overview of Iraq’s post-war history. The film is compelling when it does the former, far less so when it attempts the latter. Accurately telling the story of Iraq’s collapse following the Coalition’s illusory ‘victory’ alone would take far longer than Only the Dead’s slim runtime, so its simplistic efforts feel misleading and unsatisfactory. While a little political background is necessary for Ware to explain what he saw and why, his attempts at analysis and insertion of contemporary news clips feel out of place.
Ware’s portrayal of Zarqawi as a super villain who single-handedly derailed the rebuilding of Iraq ignores the role other factors might have played, while the soundtrack’s hyperactive guitar riffs seem to want the viewer’s fist pumping in time with the American tanks. Subtlety is not this documentary’s strong point. Having said all of the above, at those times when it sticks to telling Ware’s personal story, Only the Dead is brutally powerful. Beyond anything Ware recounts in voiceover, the effect of the war’s depravities on his soul is evident from the way his eyes swap their initial, puppy-like excitement for a look of anguished introspection. One shivers as he explains how, after being released unexpectedly by his captors moments before his execution, he was unable to shave for fear of “having a blade near my face”.
Ware is bristling with strong opinions, including his description of the American soldiers he follows as “kids who remind me how old I am…bait in a war with no winners”. In one scene, a group of them loiter around a seriously wounded Iraqi insurgent who will die without medical aid. Instead of giving him the assistance they should, one soldier casually throws a cloth over his head – as the dying man wheezes desperately for air – while another asks that he “hurry up and die”. Ware wants us to see first-hand how war dehumanises, which he succeeds in doing. Less so when it comes to giving us a history lesson.
Only the Dead is now available to rent on iTunes in the UK. onlythedeadmovie.com
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka