Exclusive: Phil Donahue’s Body of War

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When you talk about some of the legends and pioneers of television, the name “Phil Donahue” would certainly come up very early in the conversation and how could it not? His show “Donahue” (formerly “The Phil Donahue Show”) had a 26-year run in national syndication and in the 12 years since it ended, literally hundreds of others have stepped forward trying to claim the daytime talk show throne left vacant by Donahue’s retirement.

During his time on television, Donahue also earned a reputation as an outspoken liberal, so when he set out to make his first documentary, you’d expect it to have similar political leaning. In fact, Body of War, which Donahue executive produced and co-directed with doc filmmaker Ellen Spiro, surpasses the division of political parties, being an anti-war movie that looks at the most serious repercussions of the Iraq incursion, the effect it has on the soldiers that have been seriously injured during their time served.

It does so by following Tomas Young, a 22-year-old soldier shot in the spine after just five days in Iraq leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. As he struggles with his new life on returning home, Tomas’ outrage about being sent to war under false pretenses causes him to join the frontlines of the anti-war protests. This footage is effectively inter-cut with cleverly edited CSPAN footage from the 2002 Senatorial debates that led to the vote to send troops to Iraq.

Now 26, Tomas is an amazing young man, and despite his debilitating injury, he’s quite a speaker, as we see in the movie and as ComingSoon.net learned when sat down for a rare chance to talk to Donahue and the subject of his unique anti-war doc. Anyone who has thought about joining the military as a way to pay for college tuition might want to read this interview and see the movie to get another side of the story. (Really, this is about as political as we get here on ComingSoon.net, although we do have an interview with Errol Morris in the works, so watch out!)

ComingSoon.net: The story goes that you two met at Walter Reed Hospital through Ralph Nader, so how long ago was that? Was that right when you got back from Iraq?
Tomas Young: Yeah, it was in late April, early May of ’04.
Phil Donahue: You were injured in April of ’04.
Young: Right. I would’ve met you in late April, or early May of ’04 in the hospital at Walter Reed.

CS: What was the timeline after that from when you contacted Ellen and she started filming Tomas?
Donahue: Well, pretty close. I mean, when I saw him and met him, I just thought people should see this, and I appointed myself to do this. The early part I wasn’t thinking movie. I mean movies? Movies seem ridiculous. I’ve never made a movie and it’s been quite a ride. A lot of wonderful things have happened to us. We had a fabulous Midwest heartland family dealing with this injury. Eddie Vedder suddenly made his appearance in my life and agreed to write a song. Ellen Spiro is wonderful and was a big break, and she has just been sensational, and she also won the confidence of the family that she better have, if you’re going to be knocking over… no, she doesn’t knock over furniture, she comes in and she’s very good. All these things transpired for me, and came together in what we think is a movie that can put people in the seats.

CS: So she was living at Tomas’ house filming his day to day life?
Donahue: I called her. I was given her number by another person, and I’m thinking, “I met this young man and maybe I should just do a movie,” so she gave me her phone number: Mobilus Media, Austin, Texas. I called it and Ellen Spiro answered the phone, and I told her who I was. I was greatly relieved when she recognized me, and she agreed to meet with me, like a blind date, and off we go. She immediately bought this story, she wanted to do it, and still she really didn’t know me, I didn’t know her, so this was a leap of faith all the way around. Jesus, we could’ve put him in a dirty movie, so all of that came together. I just feel very lucky really, and I had a little trouble getting into the Byrd office, but that finally happened.

CS: Tomas, as far as when you two met, how did Phil approach you about making a movie and also have Ellen live there and follow you around? It must have involved a lot of time with you in front of the camera.
Young: She didn’t actually live there. Luckily, my life was such during the first two years of my recovery that she could decide to come in on any given day and film me encountering any number of new situations. There was a lot of time that she did spend at the house. She spent a few nights, but it really seemed like a lot more than it actually was. I mean granted there were trips that they traveled with us to both Crawford, Texas or Kentucky, things of that sort, to answer that part of your question. But to be approached by Phil about making a movie I jumped at the idea because you don’t really see these stories of returning veterans with amputations or in a wheel chair. You don’t hear about the struggles they go through. They’re instantly lionized and put up on pedestals as heroes, but you don’t actually ever have to witness the nuts and bolts of how they live their lives.

CS: How about having that captured on film? Were you worried about what they were going to show people, because there were some things that might have been uncomfortable for you, especially if you’re sitting in a screening at the Toronto Film Festival or elsewhere.
Young: I became comfortable with the idea that the wider we opened the window into how I live my life and what I go through, the more people would know about the day to day struggles of anybody in my situation and perhaps maybe get a better understanding of the human side of going to war.

CS: At the same time, the movie juxtaposes your struggles with the Congressional debates in October 2002. Phil, I understand that you actually watched and compiled what must’ve been hours and hours of footage. Who came up with that narrative framing device originally and decided to compile that with Ellen’s footage of Tomas?
Donahue: Well, it was my idea. I had watched the October debate live and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was so superficial and taking the White House talking points, “the smoking gun”… They’re reading the White House statement. I mean you think they might have something personal to say. It’s only a war we’re voting on. So I was very struck by that and how this President just took this whole nation and the congress by the ear and just walked them right into the sword. We think our film not only showcases the real pain of this war, the real sacrifice, but it also shows how we got there and how easy it is to go to war if you scare the people, as a historic figure by the name of Hermann Goering reminded us in the 1930s.

CS: I’m not sure when you started making the movie but at that point, had the lies already come out in the wash in terms of their not really being WMDs?
Young: Yeah, those came out… Things started to turn on those well before I went to to Iraq because I at first, because of the nature of my job, I supported the idea that possibly there was a connection to 9/11 and possibly there were WMD’s. Once those ideas were proven to be untrue, I became against the Iraq War, but of course wasn’t in a position, I felt, to speak out because I was an active duty soldier. There was no Iraq Veterans Against the War back then in 2004 or any of that, so I had nothing to do really as far as any anti-war activism. I just knew that I’d still go to Iraq and do what I had to do, but I wanted to make sure that I was as safe as possible.

CS: You already decided to include the footage from 2002, but why didn’t you want to include any of the later stuff from the Congressional hearings revealing that there was false information with the decision to go to war?
Donahue: No, no, we’re not the evening news here. This is a movie, and this was a historic debate. By the way, when we edited this, we had no idea John McCain would be the nominee… or Hillary Clinton, and we still don’t know. (chuckles) No, we edited according to what we thought best showcased the flow of the dialogue, the response to the fear, the fact that it took place three weeks before an election. You have to go back there to understand this nation. It seemed that everyone wanted to bomb somebody and we were pissed. For twenty-three men and women to stand up in the Senate and say “no” was a tremendous act of moral courage. A hundred and thirty three members of the House voted “no”, but in between you had “Saddam has UAV’s which will drop smut on our crops and poison our children,” “Saddam has this, Saddam has that,” “Saddam is outside your bedroom window”… I mean, you could feel the heartbeat of the nation accelerate, and the President took this nation by the ear right into the sword. Amazing. And that stunt on the aircraft carrier gives him away. They thought they were having a merry little war! By the way, our film shows that the framers were right. Don’t let one man make this decision. That’s the reason that only Congress can declare war–Article 1, Section 8–and they don’t. They give the President permission like this, and if he goes to war and it doesn’t work, they’re able to say, “Well, it’s not our fault.” It’s a C.Y.A. maneuver. Congress by the way has not obeyed Article 1, Section 8 since the early forties. It’s amazing. Every Congress finesses this. That’s how terrifying it is to vote on war; it could be the end of your political career.

CS: How many of the people who voted “yes” were actually still in office a few weeks later?
Donahue: That voted “aye”? In October 2002, the aye votes got no heat at all. The “no” votes were very abused by their hometown papers, by the postcards, by the letters. “How could you? These bastards dropped down our towers and you don’t want to go to war? What are one of those wimpy… what do you want to do, sing ‘Kumbaya’?” The way they marginalized the descending… and by the way, millions of Americans think it’s somehow unpatriotic and it’s not fair to the troops to criticize the President while he’s going to war. Imagine!

CS: Well, these things have changed in the country since then.
Donahue: Well, after four thousand dead Americans and a million Iraqis, people are saying, “Uh oh,” but why did it take this long? The American people stood mute while this was going on.

CS: I agree, and as far as getting Senator Byrd and getting Eddie Vedder involved. Two very different people who offer different things to the movie. Did you show either one of them any of the footage shot with Tomas before they said “yes”?
Donahue: I showed Byrd some of the choruses from CSPAN and that’s all I did. A couple of the choruses had him in it, and okay that’s all he’s got. There might have been some Tomas in it, I honestly don’t remember. By the way, I wanted to shoot it in the National Archive Building and I got it because that’s where the Constitution is. I got Tomas and Byrd rolling up to the real Constitution, and Byrd doing whatever he did. I’m not going to tell you. I had it from nine to nine forty five, and it was cancelled the next day. I believe it was cancelled because of the Michael Moore factor. You don’t want to let your space be used to facilitate a scene in an anti-Bush movie. You could lose your job for that, so there’s almost like a lockdown in Washington. I was not permitted in Dianne Feinstein’s house. Do you remember the scene where the guy comes over to Ellen and says, “No, no camera’s here”? I was in the outer area and I was going to go in to watch this.

CS: I was wondering why we never see you in the movie even though you’re around.
Donahue: I wasn’t going to go in to be seen. Nobody needs to see me in this movie. There is no narrator in the movie, there’s no archival, so we think we’re different, that’s what we think.

CS: Tomas, how has your health been in the time since the last we see of you in the movie? It’s great to see you in New York promoting the movie, so how has everything been and have you watched the movie again?
Young: I’ve watched it a few times. There are certain parts that are a lot easier to take and watch now because my body has gotten significantly better. As they told me, it was just going to take a while for the body to get used to paralysis, and my health has been getting better as is apparently my help from the V.A. quite recently, oddly enough. I hope it’s not just because of the fact that there’s this documentary out. I’ve been told there’s been some oversight in the Veteran’s Administration, and so things will start to get done on a national level, although that remains to be seen.

CS: Have either of you seen any of the war docs that have come out over the past few years? Obviously, this is a very different movie, mainly because Tomas lived through it, but I wondered if you let them inform you.
Donahue: Sure and we’re very impressed and intimidated by them. These are wonderful pieces of work here. I mean you can see the professional, I mean really, I get a little green watching these, and we certainly aren’t claiming to be better than those.

CS: This is a much more personal movie obviously.
Donahue: We think we’re different and we think that will carry us through the speed bumps. The suggestion, for example, that people don’t want to see these docs and past docs have not done well. We think we’re different and we think that’s going to redound our benefit. We’re hopeful, and we are pumped because we’ve received such wonderful responses from festivals and every place where we’ve been.

CS: Since you brought it up, one of the issues is that people who might this movie, probably already know a lot, maybe not what Tomas has been through, but it’s very much preaching to the converted in a way.
Donahue: They know there was a vote, but they don’t know about what transpired on the floor. That shows a very superficial debate by the White House, and the issue is going to war. It’s scary to see how these people respond, it’s amazing!

CS: What would you like people to get out of this movie considering that many of those who see the movie are already pro-war?
Young: Ultimately, I’d like for this to serve as both a counter recruitment tool and a wake-up call. A counter recruitment tool as young men and women who may be thinking about military enlistment as say, maybe a way to pay for college. I want them to realize that if that’s what they’re looking for the military to do, then maybe pell grants or Stafford Loans is the way to go. If a young man or woman is serious about considering the military, which is still a very honorable and noble job, maybe I can start the discussion of, “I’m going to wait until January of ’09…” Now I want it to serve as a wake-up call. If John McCain should be elected and is prepared for a prolonged occupation, he is not going to be able to get the consent of my fellow military personnel over there for a third, or fourth, or fifth time. There needs to be some sort of draft.

CS: And how about yourself?
Donahue: Well, I am instructed by Tomas’ analysis here. By the way, if we do resume the draft we have to draft the rich. I remember I had a guy on my show a hundred years ago who wrote a book. He’s a lawyer, and he had six hundred draft cases during the Vietnam War and he won them all. If your father could afford the lawyer, you didn’t have to go. Now that has to stop. This is the greatest hypocrisy of all, sending working class kids to fight and die in rice patties in Southeast Asia and the sands of Iraq. You know it’s amazing that we’ve allowed this to go on as often as we have.

CS: How do you feel about the upcoming election? Obviously, we don’t know who’s going to be elected or even nominated at this point. Do you think whoever becomes president could actually make a big change? There’s been so much damage done already, and you can’t bring back four thousand dead people, you can’t uninjure the others, so how can you make a change?
Donahue: It’s going to be tough, but there is no alternative. Pulling out I think is a horrible option, but it’s the least horrible. We don’t know what will happen if we pull out, but we do know what will happen if we stay: more and more Americans will die, more Iraqis will die. Now we have old men wanting to save face, and no young person’s life is worth an old man’s face. This is about pride. This is about sending a message, and these are the same people that would never think about sending their own children to fight this war. This is awful.

CS: Do you think anyone will be held responsible. A friend of mine who is heavy liberal before the 2004 election was suggesting that we should elect Bush so that he could be held accountable while he’s still President. Now he has eight months left, so do you think any of these people will be held accountable?
Donahue: I don’t think so. I don’t know.
Young: I’m not sure.

Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro’s Body of War will open at the IFC Film Center in New York on Wednesday and in L.A. at the NuArt Theatre on April 25 with other cities to follow.

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