“The Invisible War” — Kirby Dick’s devastating survey of sexual assault in the U.S. Armed Forces — opens in theaters today. Judging from the reviews, I’d say it’s Dick’s most celebrated documentary since 1997’s “Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.” Taking the outrage and injustice of his MPAA expose “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” into terrain that is far heavier and arguably, more necessary, “The Invisible War” seems to be galvanizing viewers in a way that I haven’t seen in a long time. Maybe the movie, which is screening within military communities and D.C., will actually force some substantive changes in the military.
But I’m also somewhat suspicious of Kirby’s tactics. While the doc is being hailed as an exemplary example of advocacy cinema, a category of docs that I don’t have any inherent problems with, I also feel like it goes overboard at certain points.
In the Village Voice last week, I wrote: “‘The Invisible War’ catalogs a startling number of teary-eyed first-person testimonials from rape victims, along with damning statistics: 20 percent of all active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted, from the most prestigious ranks at a D.C. Army Base to Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. But Dick’s occasional heavy-handedness points to the potential pitfalls of advocacy filmmaking. When he lets one of the young vets read her own suicide letter, an inherently powerful story tips over into the manipulative.”
Perhaps the story’s weight and import trumps my criticism, as I’ve seen few other reviewers have shared my opinion. And perhaps Kirby’s emotional assault is what it takes to make the stakes of the issue come forward in a powerful way. If “The Invisible War” actually puts pressure on the U.S. Military to overhaul its policies and change its atmosphere of corruption and cover-ups, I should probably just shut up and let the film do its job.