In documentaries, showing is almost always more effective than telling. But The Invisible War, an expose of sexual assault in the U.S. military, is compelling despite being all talk. Footage of the many crimes recounted in the film is, of course, nonexistent — and would be nearly unwatchable if available.
So director Kirby Dick addresses the subject directly, without gimmicks or gambits. Stylistically, The Invisible War is conventional and plainspoken, from its opening clips of vintage recruitment ads for women to its closing updates on the central characters.
The movie's power comes from words and numbers, including the military's own official statistic that 20 percent of women in the services have been sexually assaulted — as well as the estimate that 80 percent of such attacks are never reported.
Dick and his team talked to more than 100 people for the movie, including many survivors of sexual assault. The latter, who are mostly but not exclusively female, were interviewed by co-producer Amy Ziering. The stories are different in detail, yet eerily similar in outline.
Nearly 40 years ago, Susan Brownmiller wrote in Against Our Will that "rape is not a crime of lust, but of violence and power." The Invisible War supports this assessment at every turn. Soldiers and sailors are often abused by their superiors, and are strongly discouraged from reporting such crimes by officers further up the chain of command.
Here are two of the more astonishing aspects of the military response to sexual assault: Sometimes victims are required to report the crime to the person who committed it; and women who are raped by married men are often charged with adultery while their attackers go unpunished.
Such a system, says Army criminal investigator Sgt. Myla Haider, is designed principally "to help women get raped better." It certainly helps explain the 80-percent-unreported rate.
The movie depicts the military's culture of intimidation and assault as global, not as an aberration that might be explained by the pressures of combat or the tedium of life on secluded posts. One interviewee was repeatedly drugged and raped while serving at a remote base in Alaska. But two others — one unidentified because she's still on active duty — describe the Marine Barracks in Washington, D.C., about 10 blocks from the U.S. Capitol, as ranking among the riskiest postings for women in the entire American military.
The thread linking the various stories is the case of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran attacked while serving in Michigan. Her assailant beat her, leaving her with post-traumatic stress and a dislocated jaw. Years later, the movie observes as the Department of Veterans Affairs repeatedly refuses to treat her, and a class-action suit she joined is dismissed because rape is an "occupational hazard" of a career in uniform.
This may be his most wrenching film, but Dick has previously investigated related subjects. His documentaries include Outrage, an expose of closeted gay politicians who support anti-gay policies; and the lighter-hearted This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which considered the MPAA's classifications, especially R and NC-17. The Invisible War is closest, however, to Twist of Faith, Dick's look at pederasty in the Catholic Church.
Compared with the church, Dick said in a recent interview, the military seems to be moving quickly to change its ways. The Invisible War ends by noting that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has begun to alter the military's procedures to support sexual assault victims and make prosecutions more likely. At the end of a movie that's both chilling and inflaming, this postscript offers a tiny ration of relief. (Recommended)