The Ground Truth

January 22nd, 2006

Until yesterday, I thought interviewing Neil Young was going to be my most challenging Sundance assignment.

We have these daily production meetings here in our little condo/office where we run through who’s gonna interview who, and who’s gonna cover what. But I missed yesterday morning’s on account of my “Leonard Cohen” screening. Now, you gotta know that most of my colleagues haven’t seen any films. But I’ve made a point of seeing the films I’m covering. Seems obvious, right? But given days where the margin of time between shoots is measured in minutes, not hours, it’s not so easy to do. So my colleagues may harbor a little bit of resentment. And that may be why I got stuck with a pretty tough assignment: covering “The Ground Truth.”

Today I interviewed three Iraq war veterans, all of whom are under thirty-years-old. One of them, Robert Acosta, graduated high school just four years ago. He served in Iraq after graduating. Now he’s missing his right hand.

Patricia Foulkrod’s documentary, “The Ground Truth,” is an unflinching examination of the war in Iraq, and the psychological and physical tolls of modern warfare. It is some heavy shit. And it’s 180° from the red carpet, celebrity bullshit most Sundancers are interested in.

I interviewed the guys on the roof of The Silver Queen Hotel, right in the center of Main Street. The Self Magazine Luxury Suite was just below us, gifting celebritiues (Shia Lebuff, Tyler Hilton, The Beastie Boys) with thousands of dollars worth of free shit. We could hear revellers and live bands whooping it up on the street below. Skiers and snowboarders were getting in their last runs. And this amazing dude, Marine reservist Paul Reickhoff, says to me, “This war is more important than these guys snowboarding, or Paris Hilton, or any of this other crap.”

Amen, brother.

You may have noticed a thread in my writing that I think we’re in some really scary times. These days feel awfully Aldous Huxley to me: the soma (pharmacudicals), the feelies (Hollywood blockbusters), thought crime (Bush-approved eavesdropping). There’s some crazy slight of hand going on here. And these soldiers are getting the short end of the magic trick.

And that’s sort of troubling to me. I’m all about substance over form, but culture is all about form. Hollywood is all about form. So much of this festival is all about form. Not all of it. There are plenty of events that aren’t all about the red carpet (as I wrote for MTV News tonight). But I’m pretty sure that most people don’t give a shit. The 50,000 chumps partying on Main Street last night certainly don’t.

And that’s part of my discomfort with interviewing these guys. Because to many people, MTV represents that: form over substance. Now, you know me. You know that’s not my bag. But that wasn’t all. I was afraid these guys would think I was some kind of jerk for not serving. Or would think, “Who does this guy think he is?” And yunno what? Asking some dude about what burning flesh smells like, or what it’s like to spend seven weeks in Walter Reed, that’s some scary stuff. Weirder still, in the middle of the interview, I found myself feeling kinda guilty. And I’m not sure why. Because I haven’t done enough? Because I haven’t spoken up enough? I’m not quite sure.

Of course, they were cool with me. They were great guys. They were passionate, and articulate, and really, really deep. It went really well. I was really moved. I believed in these guys. I’m pullin’ for ’em. I’m gonna make as much noise as I’m able. (Not that they need my help. Paul is one media saavy dude — check out his blog on The Huffington Post).

“It’s not about whether you join or don’t join,” Patricia told me. “It’s about whether you show up.”