Lieutenant Mike Scotti never thought he’d wind up making a movie. And that is what makes Severe Clear, the full-length documentary that came out of Scotti’s personal footage, so successful.
Disconcertingly, this is a movie that espouses no message, no morals or ruminations on why we went to Iraq, no thoughts on how our experiences in Mesopotamia might inform our efforts in Afghanistan. Severe Clear incorporates almost no hindsight; even the narration draws only from diaries and letters Scotti kept while in Iraq. Severe Clear is a time capsule, an unadulterated look at one of the most significant moments in America’s history. The fact that the movie also happens to be hilarious, exciting, moving, and troubling only adds to its appeal.
In March of 2010, a staggering 25 hours of video were uploaded to Youtube per minute. And what amazing topic does all this content cover? It’s you. It’s your opinions about the iPad, it’s your pet doing stupid things to furniture, it’s that crazy dance your friends did at their wedding. But all of that is 2010. March 2003 was a very different time for self-documentation.
Personal camcorders (using Mini-DV tapes) had finally reached the the size where they were truly portable. At the same time, the significance of these little devices had not yet dawned on most people. Facebook didn’t exist. No one’s life had yet been ruined because some embarrassing recording of them had made it to the internet. The military had no policy on the use of personal recording devices in war. As a result, Scotti had total freedom to film whatever he wanted. He (and several of his friends, from time to time) wore the little cameras around their necks and ended up capturing what they experienced with almost obsessive regularity.
The movie begins with the typical grab-assing and antics of Marines that are bored and restless. But whereas other war movies have dutifully reproduced military culture and humor on screen, the effects are different when seen through the eyes of a participant. In one clip, we listen to Scotti complain about the press as he films some of them milling about camp; soon after, we catch him zooming in on and tracking a female reporter’s (nicely toned) rear end. The camera itself plays a part in the movie. Sometimes it’s the butt of jokes, but we also get to see it being used tactically, for its nightvision and zoom capabilities.
The camera work during action scenes reflects the nature of combat itself. The dark footage shakes from gunfire. More often than not, the camera ends up sideways on a table and we see only lopsided glimpses of the firefight. Video cuts in and out; barked orders only confuse the matter. We soon find out that the Marines are as confused as we are during combat. Scotti brings the camera out to an enemy’s position the day after a night battle. He shows us bloody uniforms and expended ammunition, but the attackers are gone. Who were they? Where did they get their weapons? We don’t find out.
There are many things this movie won’t do. It won’t provide any sort of closure on the men of Scotti’s unit. What happened to them after the invastion? Scotti shares with us the death of one close friend, but only mentions that others have also been lost. The guys we saw in the beginning, playing pranks on each other, making stupid faces into the camera, are they alive still? The movie doesn’t help answer the question “what went wrong?” The opinions Scotti does offer are those he had in 2003, which he himself admits were less than informed. At one point in the movie, he marvels at the ruins of the ancient city Babylon, musing “I thought this shit only existed in fucking Led Zeppelin songs.”
My advice to potential viewers of Severe Clear is to forget about the movie doesn’t do. It’s not a war drama, and it’s not really a documentary, so don’t compare it to others in those genres. Go to Severe Clear to remind yourself what March 2003 was like for America, the Marine Corps, and one Marine in the middle of a war he didn’t really understand. Enjoy it, and take from it what you will.