A lot of the time, I sit down for Sundance documentaries just itching for a dose of righteous indignation.
 
I suspect I'm not alone.
 
But too often, even documentaries with the best of intentions deliver only partially or else fail to deliver at all.
 
You read the description of the documentary in the Sundance guide and the topic/thesis is one that you agree with passionately, but then you watch in misery as one thing after another goes wrong. The filmmaker stretches their point beyond its breaking point, or comes up short of a full treatise. The filmmaker properly targets a problem, but has no interest in even hinting at a solution. The filmmaker loses faith in the inherent power of the subject matter and resorts to manipulative editing or overbearing music to jerk the audience around like a puppet. Or the filmmaker is so condescending or full of contempt for the alternative viewpoint that their actual point gets lost in facile name-calling.
 
You'd think it'd be easy to make a film that stirs the emotions of a Sundance audience that's often easily moved, but I've found that it's far simpler to stumble and squander good will. 
 
That why I'm able to resist criticizing Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War" for not being especially artistically adventurous.
 
Yes, "The Invisible War" is a reasonably straightforward talking head-driven documentary, opened up mainly with stock footage and a couple scenes taking the characters on the road. Dick ("Sick" "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"), an Oscar and Emmy nominee, has made several previous films that more aggressively challenge viewers in terms of formalism or, more frequently, audience identification with off-kilter characters or circumstances. 
 
What Dick has done with "The Invisible War" is make an audience-mobilizing documentary that hits you in the gut in the opening minutes and doesn't let up, but also avoids a great majority of easy pratfalls. "The Invisible War" doesn't overstay its welcome at 90 minutes, nor does it ever lose confidence in the ability of its subjects to be powerful on their own, without anybody putting their thumb on the scale. It finds a way to be ideologically pragmatic, without ever sacrificing its laser focus, and unrelentingly outraged, without forgetting the need to include a call to action.
 
And perhaps most importantly, "The Invisible War" may depress you and make you cry, but it'll also probably leave you inspired. It's a portrait of courage as much as victimhood. 
 
[More after the break...]
 
"The Invisible War" begins with a string of recruitment ads wooing women to the armed services through the decades. We're then introduced to a series of women who describe the circumstances -- all positive, whether family tradition, duty or the desire to test their limits -- that brought them into the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines or the Coast Guard. These are women who chose to make commitments to the military and believed in the cause of defending and fighting for the country.
 
But then the testimonials begin. One after another, the interview subjects describe how they were sexually assaulted, how their patriotic dreams became nightmares and how the military was unable to keep them safe or, in most cases, to punish the perpetrators. 
 
In one of many damning statistics interspersed throughout the documentary, we're told that 20 percent of all servicewomen were assaulted during their service. Even more upsetting, we're told that more than 80 percent of victims don't report their assaults and that even among the reported incidents only 21 percent go to trial.
 
As with Dick's Catholic church expose "Twist of Fate," "The Invisible War" is a chronicle of institutional failings in the face of sexual scandal. In this military contest, sexual assault is a crime that carries great stigma in the military, but too often that stigma is turned on the women, who have to make their reports to commanding officers who are sometimes the perpetrators, often friends with the perpetrators and often reticent to weaken their units. It's a culture in which masculinity is prized and boys-will-be-boys attitudes abound, creating circumstances in which a woman allegedly raped by a married colleague can be charged with adultery and in which the accuser is more likely to be forced out of the service after making the accusation than the accused. Dick has dozens of subjects willing to go on-camera in "The Invisible War," which is a remarkable achievement, but the only active duty servicewoman admitting to being assaulted is featured only in silhouette and with her voice modified.
 
If the only achievement in "The Invisible War" were giving faces and voices  and visibility to this invisible conflict, that would be of substantial value. In addition to making the subjects comfortable enough to appear on camera, Dick and fellow producer Amy Ziering got amazing frankness and expertly crafted heartbreaking narratives around several of the subjects, bringing several of the stories together in a crushing climax. 
 
The doc's clear "star" is Kori, a plucky and diminutive Coast Guard veteran whose jaw was damaged in an act of violence that preceded her rape. Because  the injury occurred outside of what is considered a conventional military context, Kori is struggling to make the VA pay for the surgery she needs. She's also struggling with PTSD from the incident, while trying to maintain her marriage to Rob, who may be the world's most understanding man, but who's also in over his head here. One sequence of Kori and Rob sharing a couch and fighting off tears while describing their strained relationship is just one of a dozen moments practically guaranteed to reduce viewers to tears.
 
It's also hard not to be captivated by Myla, a former CID sergeant with her own assault history, or Trina, whose posting in Alaska became a cycle of unpunished druggings and rapes. Dick holds off for a while, but he also acknowledges that men can be victims of military sexual assault, taking care to emphasize that these assaults, which actually outnumber the reported assault cases involving women, have absolutely nothing to do with the inclusion of gays in the military.
 
The talking head testimonials are well shot, but never cheat in on the subjects for tear-jerking moments. The tears are jerked naturally and without any embellishment from the score, which I didn't notice at all. Emotion comes from the honesty and lack of affectation on the part of the subjects, not from any trickery on Dick's part.
 
None of the perpetrators, alleged or otherwise, are named or featured in "The Invisible War." In lieu of those antagonists, there'd be an instinct to worry that The Military would be treated as a monolithic villain for the piece, but Dick is able to differentiate between the military's internal system of justice and the overall institution itself. There are many active military officers who acknowledge the need for change, or at least acknowledge the existence of a problem, who are treated with admiration. The only military figures who are demonized are the deniers, people like Rear Admiral Anthony Kurta or former SAPRO (Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office) director Kaye Whitley. Even if many or most of the subjects admit by the end of the movie that they wouldn't want to see their own daughters ever join up, Dick's agenda isn't anything close to "Women shouldn't be in the military." He's saying that there is a system within the military that needs fixing and the film supports a number of means to make those changes, including law suit, direct interaction with a number of members of Congress and a host of cyber campaigns that will be set in motion by the movie.
 
I attended the premiere for "The Invisible War" and can report -- entirely separate from my own gut response -- that the US Documentary competition entry plays like gangbusters. "The Invisible War" is a documentary with a chance to make a tangible difference, which is something many films aspire to, but few films ever pull off. 
 
I still hope that I'll see more aesthetically innovative documentaries over the next week at Sundance, but it will take some effort for this winter's other docs to this effectively tug at the heartstrings and stoke my sense of moral outrage.
 
Other Sundance Film Festival 2012 Reviews: