Of this year's Oscar-nominated films, none is more relevant to Military City, USA than Kirby Dick's The Invisible War. With rigor and empathy, this documentary (now available on iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix) exposes the startling scope of sexual assault throughout the United States Armed Forces.
The Invisible War is groundbreaking in the mass of evidence it gathers and presents, making the case that sexual assault in the military is not an isolated matter of a scandal every 10 years or so, but an ongoing epidemic. The formidable statistics that punctuate this film are all from U.S. government reports. According to the Department of Defense, 20 percent of female soldiers, or one in five, are sexually assaulted. A Navy study found that 15 percent of incoming recruits attempted or committed rape before entering the military. As Brigadier General Loree Sutton, M.D., U.S. Army (Retired) explains, "Particularly for a savvy perpetrator … a relatively closed system, like the military … becomes a prime target-rich environment for a predator."
The film is a direct investigative documentary, similar in form to 2010 Oscar winner doc Inside Job. A model of long-form journalism, it is thick with interviews, data, and historical context. With such reach and access, astounding secrets and conflicts of interest are revealed. There are stark interviews with journalists and advocates, active and retired military officials, members of the DOD and the military justice system.
Dick's muckraking is deftly balanced by producer Amy Ziering's empathic relationships with the survivors, women and men, who share their stories. We see how the violations these soldiers endured led to further trauma when they reported the assaults. Testimony after testimony illustrates that, as brutal as the assault was for the victim, the professional retaliation they endured was worse. In one of the final sequences of the film, each of the survivors sorrowfully admits that they would not recommend military service for women. As it stands now, rape in the military is ruled "an incidence of service," an occupational hazard.
Yet, this is not an anti-military film. The personal testimonies come from veterans who loved and excelled in their jobs serving the military before their attack. The film opens with a brief history of women in the military, a fantastic montage of archive footage full of exuberant pride.
The Invisible War premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award. Since then, the film has been used in military training and policy discussions. After seeing the film, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (who last week announced women will officially be allowed to serve in combat) revised policies on how sexual assault cases are prosecuted, and steps have been made to further address the issue in the military. A confidant from the Pentagon told Dick that the investigation of the Lackland Basic Training sex scandal would not have been as vigorous if not for the influence of the film.
The film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, but that distinction pales in light of the substantial impact that the film has already achieved and the changes it will continue to compel.
The Invisible War
★★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Writ. and dir. Kirby Dick; feat. Helen Benedict, Anu Bhagwati, Susan Burke. (not rated)