Sharing the political outlook underlying Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and the other semi-documentary polemics that multiplied last summer in the vain hope of denying President Bush a second term, “Voices in Wartime” arrives at the Landmark E Street Cinema today as a straggler. The failure of timeliness may be explained by director and co-producer Rick King’s failure of thematic focus.
At its least partisan (but most pretentious), the film attempts to pass itself off as a study of how poetry and warfare have coexisted through the centuries. As a practical matter, Mr. King confines his range of citations to Troy, the Crimean War, World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War and Iraq, with fleeting reminders that Africa and South America have seen some ugliness in recent decades. Nevertheless, some of his interview subjects — Jon Stallworthy of Oxford University and Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr. of the United States Military Academy, for example — are academic specialists in war poetry, so there are moments when the commentary proves genuinely well-informed and thoughtful.
Mr. King also benefits from one practicing poet with combat experience and a vivid, high-strung presence: David Connolly of Boston, who served as a rifleman in Vietnam. Unfortunately, Mr. King hasn’t found a method of maximizing the contributions of his most attractive and eloquent talking heads.
As it unfolds, “Voices” begins to look suspiciously like an unfinished endorsement for a particularly aggrieved constituency: the militant membership of Poets Against the War, the obscure pressure group that gained notoriety in 2003 for trying to turn a planned White House poetry symposium into a forum for opposition to intervention in Iraq.
Once the movie begins to colonize itself with antiwar poets of current vintage, the mask of centuries-old literary and historical perspective pretty much crumbles, leaving you to debate the weakest links among all those posing as poetic moralists: Sam Hamill, Emily Warn, Peter Levitt, Marilyn Nelson, or the wonderfully obscure Pamela Hale of Seattle or Ali Habash of Baghdad?
Probably the weakest is Mr. Levitt, who recalls participating in the same London antiwar march that now provides the backdrop for Ian McEwan’s acclaimed novel “Saturday.” The Levitt assessment of the day’s lofty aims seems dubious even for the summer of 2003: “Fill the air with poems so thick that not even bombs can fall through!”
Mr. King solicits opinions from about two dozen people in the course of “Voices,” including a 9-year-old antiwar girl poet from Boston. He even makes time for sidebars devoted to Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen while evoking World War I. Nevertheless, the movie labors to squeeze out a running time of 74 minutes.
Illustrating the kind of hypocrisy that haunts antiwar cinema, much of the visual padding depends on archival war footage or sequences from war movies. It’s difficult to finesse the fact that a photorealistic medium will be drawn to battle spectacle.
Caught between complicated and expedient alternatives — compiling a serious evaluation of war in the annals of literature on one hand or humoring the pieties of a provincial antiwar group on the other — Rick King has settled for the easier and less edifying option.
TITLE: “Voices in Wartime”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter — occasional archive footage of combat, carnage and destruction)
CREDITS: Directed by Rick King. Editing by Daniel Loewenthal. Music by Anton Sanko.
RUNNING TIME: 74 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS