Like Amir Bar-Lev's The Tillman Story (2010), Kirby Dick's The Invisible War scathingly indicts U.S.-military culture. Yet the focus of each documentary is vastly different in scale: one person as opposed to one gender. Bar-Lev examines the exploitation of the corpse of Pat Tillman, the highly principled pro-footballer-turned-Army-Ranger killed by his own platoon in Afghanistan in 2004. Dick's film investigates the scandalous epidemic of rape in the U.S. armed forces — the war on women who fight wars.
The Invisible War lays bare the reprehensible failings and hypocrisy of a powerful institution, as Dick did in previous nonfiction works such as Twist of Faith (2004), about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church; This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006), an occasionally gimmicky exposé of the MPAA's outsize influence and idiocy; and Outrage (2009), on closeted pols who vote anti-gay. Told through an array of talking heads — including servicewomen (and a few servicemen) who recount their attacks, military psychiatrists, NCIS agents, attorneys, journalists, and obtuse Department of Defense employees — and intertitles revealing appalling facts (20 percent of female veterans have been sexually assaulted while serving), Dick's film unveils an environment that, in the words of one Army shrink, is "target rich for predators."
Acting as the rudder of The Invisible War, a septet of women — many of whom considered military service a civic duty — details their rapes and the gross indifference, ostracizing, and victim-blaming by their superiors after they reported the crimes. Tiny, wiry Kori Cioca, whose assailant broke her jaw when she was attacked in 2005 while serving in the Coast Guard, opens up the Ohio home she shares with her husband (another Coast Guard vet) and young daughter to Dick and his crew. Cioca reveals the dozens of meds, some highly toxic when combined, the VA has prescribed for her PTSD and severe facial-nerve damage — surgery for which the agency repeatedly denies her.
Cioca's superiors told her that she would be court-martialed for lying if she went forward with her case; almost all of the film's seven subjects recall similar threats of retaliation. Attorney Susan Burke (herself the daughter of a career Army officer) — who recently represented Cioca and other women raped during military service in a lawsuit arguing that they were denied due process and their First Amendment rights — points out that victims of sexual assault in the armed forces have no impartial body to turn to. They must go to their chain of command; commanders, who often have no legal training and are loath to have their unit "tarnished" by an investigation, are likely to sweep charges under the rug and have, in Burke's words, "unfettered power to do whatever they want." An intertitle reveals an even more horrifying reason not to come forward: Twenty-five percent of women in the military don't report rape because the person to notify was the rapist.
Interview after interview, statistic after statistic, Dick's advocacy project thoroughly incenses — and appears to be having tangible, policy-affecting results. Two days after Dick screened The Invisible War for Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on April 14, the DOD head announced plans requiring, as the New York Times reported, that all sexual assault complaints be handled by more-senior officers, not unit commanders — a change that will hopefully lead to more prosecutions.
Yet Panetta's actions, as the closing intertitles assert, are "not enough." We are directed to a website and to "join the conversation" on Twitter — is this enough? — while Mary J. Blige's "Need Someone" plays. The choice of this mewling ballad reflects Dick's occasional missteps in The Invisible War, like having Cioca read her old suicide note aloud. For such a powerful exposé, the wish is that it ended more furiously, less softly.