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Movie Review: Year At Danger

By Mike Everleth ⋅ September 15, 2008

Soldier in Iraq

The title Year at Danger is to be taken literally in two senses: First, any year spent by a National Guardsman in Iraq is going to be mired in real-life, perpetual, physical “danger.” Second, Forward Operation Base Danger is the actual name of the base where the aforementioned Guardsman, Steve Metze, was stationed in Iraq in 2005.

In the first few seconds of the film, Metze, who co-directed the film with Don Swaynos, gives a quick rundown of his life. After graduating from West Point and serving in the military during Desert Storm, he returned home to study filmmaking and settled down and got married to his wife Tiffany. He also joined the Texas National Guard where he was deployed sporadically around the world, e.g. Bosnia, Japan, et. al., until he was ordered to serve in the current Iraq conflict.

Also, just after he found out he was leaving, he also found out he was going to become a father for the first time.

This is the real emotional core for this simply amazing film, a film I sincerely hope doesn’t fall into the “nobody wants to watch anything about the Iraq war” black hole just because a couple of other Iraq war documentaries didn’t make boffo box office in the theater. This is an incredibly powerful, emotionally moving and deeply resonant documentary. It’s a film, whether people actually want to or not, should be made to watch it.

When the news comes, Steve seems to take it in stride. He’s spent his entire adult life serving his country, so his current assignment just happens to be his latest assignment. He’s not heartless, of course. Obviously sad about having to leave his new wife and probably miss the birth of his child, still Steve never questions the order, on camera at least. Certain family members don’t take the news so well, but Tiffany also holds up a brave face.

The politics of sending Guardsmen to fight like full-time soldiers is never fully brought up. There’s a bit about the issue of stop-loss — the re-assignment of already deployed soldiers — later in the film, but Steve leaves the politics of his own situation completely out of the situation. The movie also doesn’t get too heavy on the toll of breaking up of families by these practices. We see the obvious hardship, but this is specifically Steve and Tiffany’s story, who aren’t trying to make any broader statements. The audience, whatever our thoughts are about this war and war in general, can make our own assumptions.

Year at Danger is fairly straightforwardly structured, which I just wonder if that’s a result of whatever filmmaking training Steve had, or if it’s a result of his “need for structue” that he says he first went to West Point to get.

But the film unfolds like a traditional action film, really. Or, in a certain regard, a horror movie. A better “character” in Steve couldn’t have been better devised by a writer. The new wife, the pregnancy — in a fictional film this set-up would be totally cliche, but here it really happens. So, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the film is a love story since the main “plot” is for Steve to survive to see his wife again and his baby for the first time. Although one could call this an “Iraq war” documentary, the real foundation is this specific family’s bond, which is what really makes the film so powerful.

At first, there’s Steve’s long training he has to endure — captured only briefly on video, but months in real time for Steve — then a ridiculously long waiting for deployment. He’s stuck in Kuwait for weeks. But once Steve eventually makes it into Iraq, the tension hits immediately.

The soldiers’ biggest concern and fear isn’t getting shot at with bullets. It’s running over an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) while on the road, or having a mortar shell land on their heads during lunch on the base. Mortars rain down every day. Most of them are incompetently shot off by insurgents, but, as the saying goes, even a stopped clock is correct twice a day. All it takes is one perfectly fired mortar to cause serious damage.

IEDs are the biggest fear, though. Every time we see soldiers leaving the base and go on patrol, your heart goes into your throat. IEDs seem to have a better chance at success and the violence they spew is devastating. And yes, many of the soldiers we get to know and befriend in the film — well, you feel as though you’ve befriended them yourself via Steve — have terrible encounters with them.

There’s so much going on this film as you can see, but the real success here is Steve himself, who proves to be an excellent subject for a documentary. I think it would be impossible to not root for this guy to come home. He has an excellent dry sense of humor that’s endearing and really solid interviewing skills, that you tend to forget he’s “interviewing” people, but you feel like you’re sitting down and having a conversation with him and his fellow soldiers and family members. Steve actually becomes so endearing that I’ve been calling him “Steve” and not the proper “Metze” all through this review because now I feel like I know the guy.

More people need to get to know Steve. So, I hope Year at Danger can break through where other Iraq documentaries haven’t. This isn’t a war film. It’s a human one.

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