“We all have dark places” says journalist Michael Ware as he narrates Only the Dead, a film compiled of his footage from several years as a war correspondent in Iraq. In this documentary we are given an uncensored view of the horrors of war and the psychological impact it had on him. Only the Dead is reviewed after the jump.
A war correspondent for Time Magazine, Michael Ware became part of the headlines when al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi chose him to be the recipient of the first ever insurgent footage of a suicide bombing. As part of his reporting, Michael had spent time cultivating relationships with the insurgents, so it is likely that this is why Zarqawi picked him. Michael became fascinated with Zarqawi, a man known for his extreme barbarity. What was inside the man who committed such atrocities? As Michael followed the hunt for Zarqawi and his men, he questioned his own motivations for being in Iraq.
Only the Dead feels like an exorcism; something that Michael had to get out of him in order to heal and move on. It is apparent from his commentary that he carried a lot of emotional and psychological baggage out of Iraq. He made the decision to seek the perspective of the insurgents, and while it gave him an angle and footage that other journalists were not getting, it clearly came a price. After going out one evening and watching the insurgents carry out an attack, he wondered if by being there, he was complicit in their actions. He was afraid of what his choices said about him as a person.
The film contains some extraordinary footage from the front line of conflict. The scenes in Ramadi shot when Michael was embedded with US troops was particularly impressive, as it gave us a look at both the battle and the excruciating wait for battle. I can’t imagine sitting in these fortified buildings, just waiting for an incoming attack. This part of the film was also strong because the filmmakers let extended sequences play out without Michael’s narration. The narration is important to understand his psyche, but it was overbearing at times and took away from the power of the footage. I have no doubt that he meant every word, but his narration had an off-putting tendency to be lyrical.
When introducing the film, Michael warned us that it asks a lot of his audience, and he was right. Only the Dead contains one of the most harrowing scenes I have ever witnessed on film. We’ve all seen people killed on film, but have you watched someone die? Actually heard them gasp for their final breath? It is profoundly upsetting. Watching this film is an emotional experience and I felt like I’d been put through the ringer by the end. This is uncensored footage of war and its impact. It’s awful and we should all have to see how awful it is. Only the Dead is thought-provoking, disturbing viewing.
By Sam McCosh
Directors: Bill Guttentag, Michael Ware
Producers: Michael Ware, Patrick McDonald
Runtime: 78 minutes