Sunday, November 9, 2008

Help me out, people…I can’t do this alone…

I caught Phil Donahue on Rachel Maddow’s show Friday night; it’s always reassuring to see him out and about and it’s especially ironic to watch him on MSNBC, where he at one time hung his hat and hosted a talk-show in the time slot now occupied by Countdown with Keith Olbermann. Donahue got his pink slip from the cable network because (according to the powers-that-be) his ratings were dismal, but a majority of people dismiss this as road apples (his show was outdrawing Chris Matthews’, ferchrissake) and believe it was the anti-war content of his telecasts that made the suits nervous, particularly since everyone at MSNBC was in the tank for the grand and glorious excursion then known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Olbermann pointed out on a recent Countdown that while that may have played a role in the network’s decision to cut Donahue loose, the real reason for his exit was that he insisted on doing the program in front of a live audience, which added considerable expense to the show’s budget.)

Phil was on the Maddow show to promote a sobering, award-winning documentary which will make its television debut on The Sundance Channel Tuesday (November 11, Veterans’ Day) entitled Body of War (2007). Written, produced and directed in tandem with Ellen Spiro, Body outlines the true-life tale of Tomas Young, an Iraqi war veteran who—five days after being stationed in the conflict—returns to the United States paralyzed from a bullet to his spine. As Donahue related Friday night:

Tomas is paralyzed from the nipples down. Tomas can’t walk. Tomas can’t cough. Tomas can’t sweat, you know—his respiratory system doesn’t work…morning nausea, UTI…the more you…the closer you…we’ve been living and watching this for four years now. So it’s become a real chapter in our lives, a very personal experience…and it shows the harm in harm’s way…in…at a time when we have the most sanitized war in our history.

Young’s condition takes a major toll on his family: his mother is moved (along with Tomas) to engage in political activism against the war and his wife devotes herself to taking care of her husband…but sadly, as the documentary progresses, we learn that the young couple end up separating as a result of the pressures involved. His brother Nathan also deploys for Iraq (the closing credits tell us that after serving a year there, he was redeployed in September 2007), much to his mother’s concern and dismay.

As Tomas’ story unfolds, Spiro and Donahue skillfully blend another element into their fascinating documentary: the debate in the U.S. Senate during the rush to war, and how 77 members of that august body voted to give the Bush administration a blank check in an atmosphere of fear. West Virginia’s senior senator, Robert C. Byrd—a man I have strenuously disagreed with on various issues in the past—was the only individual who had apparently read the U.S. Constitution at that historical juncture, and parts of his stirring oratory on the floor of the Senate denouncing the decision are prominently featured in Body. There’s also a scene where Young and Byrd meet in his office, and the Senator reads the list of the “Immortal 23”—the number of senators who voted no—but asks the young veteran for help since he’s not wearing his glasses. The sight of these two men—one permanently in a wheelchair, the other infirmed by age—making their way down the halls of the Senate was enough to produce a “Niagara Falls” moment in yours truly. (The other moment in the film that moved me—a moment of joy rather than sorrow—is when Young is jeered at during an anti-war rally by a group of clueless pro-war protestors, who frustrate him to the point where he yells: “If I wasn’t in this wheelchair, I’d kick your ass!”)

More from the Donahue interview:

The President said you can’t shoot the…take pictures of the coffins, and the entire press corps said “Okay.” (Holding up DVD) This shows…the pain. This shows what I think is…we hope it’s a shaft of light in a big, dark hole which I think has been left by corporate media…this is not television fare…this will not draw an audience…this is not good for business.

But it is positively riveting stuff. And because I’m fortunate to receive Sundance on Demand courtesy of CharredHer, it was well worth my time—so if you’re in the same position…or have access to The Sundance Channel this Tuesday, I strongly suggest you check it out.

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