Michael Ware, the lawyer turned Courier-Mail, Time and CNN journalist turned filmmaker, calls Only the Dead a film that wasn't meant to be made. His documentary is cobbled together from hundreds of hours of footage he shot while in Iraq as a reporter, with a movie never part of his plans. Perhaps that's why the trembling handicam images feel immediate and urgent, even in a time where alarming visuals of combat have become commonplace.
Only the Dead charts Ware's obsession with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi following the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Al-Zarqawi wasn't a point of focus for many at the time, but his brutal methods — starting with suicide bombings, then escalating to filmed beheadings of foreign hostages and worse — certainly earned him increasing attention. The faction he founded would become the Islamic State.
There's more to Ware and al-Zarqawi's story, just as there's more behind the documentary's existence. Many of the remarkable sights contained within only became possible after Ware forged a connection with the insurgents, who began to feed him discs of their own videos, wanting him to disseminate them to the western media. Becoming an unofficial intermediary, he was placed in a tenuous and tricky position. While Only the Dead doesn't delve into the ethical side of Ware's interactions, it does chart the clear influence the situation had upon his viewpoint.
A picture really does speak a thousand words in that regard, although the film isn't short on the latter — filling in the history of the Iraq war, as well as conveying Ware's reflections. Context is helpful, but verbal explanation almost seems unnecessary given how striking the shaky footage proves. And yet, there's something about the combination of distressing visuals and voiceover insights that hits the mark.
Ware is the key, starting out "young and dumb enough for war to have its false sense of adventure", but slowly changing as a result of his time chronicling the Iraqi conflict. As his narration makes plain, even as the film depicts violent and bloody events gone by and horrors occurring in a nation far from his own, this strory is overwhelmingly personal.
Entertainment, this is not. Cast Homeland, American Sniper or any other screen effort that claim to dissect the war on terror far from your thoughts. Ware's offering — as co-directed with veteran filmmaker Bill Guttentag — walks in the shoes and offers the mindset of someone who's there, and is then lucky enough to be able to look back at what he lived through.
It's worth remembering that his account, though released within a world now brimming with YouTube videos and social media posts from those on the ground, predates this now unavoidable phenomenon. You might have seen the likes of Ware's offering before; however prior to this, you've never been brought not just beyond the front lines, but into the complications of his harrowing journey.