February 2, 2006

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FILM: Voices in Wartime (NR)

by Amy Diaz

Poets rap about war (rap in the 1960s sense of the word) with readings from conflicts past and present in Voices in Wartime.

And the 1960s is probably a good place to begin the discussion of this film’s talking heads (poets and scholars), as most of them are roughly of that generation. The poetry ranges from the poems of the first World War to the poets’ stand against the Iraq war in 2003 (with some Homer’s Illiad thrown in). Historically, even in the more “romantic” poems about war, death and suffering play a big part, suggesting that even before weapons separated opposing warriors from each other, the armies understood (even if the civilians didn’t) that war didn’t offer as much honor and heroics as advertised. The movie skillfully highlights these themes.

Intercut with the examination of war poetry through the ages is the story of how poet Sam Hamill organized poets worldwide to speak out about the Iraq war. This activism arose from an invitation to a 2003 White House symposium on poetry. He invited poets to send him anti-war poems for the event and he talks in the movie about the naiveté of the White House in expecting that a poetry symposium would not be political. The scenes of these events are perhaps the movie’s weakest — nothing called Poets Against War was going to the White House nor would it serve as a turning point in public opinon about the war. Voices in Wartime is at its best in segments where modern soldiers find kinship with the words poets from earlier wars.

For all its scholarly loveliness, Voices in Wartime doesn’t offer much that is new. Remove some Spielbergian touches in Band of Brothers and there is nothing said about combat in Voices in Wartime that the HBO mini-series doesn’t say just as well and usually more succinctly. And the poetry of Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman or Wilfred Owen referenced in the film is more powerful than anything said about their poetry.

Poetry is a tough medium for political change. I have a hard time seeing a project such as Voices in Wartime being persuasive to anyone not already persuaded. Unlike, for example, The Fog of War (the documentary of three years ago with Robert McNamara and his thoughts on war, including the two for which he strategized), Voices in Wartime doesn’t offer a different perspective on combat, as either a personal or political thing. And it takes a change of perspective, rather than just a restatement of position, to truly change minds. Voices in Wartime offers a lovely, mournful hymn against war that will likely only be heard by the faithful.

Voices in Wartime will play Saturday, Feb. 4, at the New Hampshire Technical Institute, 31 College Drive, Sweeney Auditorium, Concord, at 7 p.m. and on small screens nationwide through April 4. For more information on the film, see voicesinwartime.org.

C+

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