Of the battery of damning statistics about female sexual assault in the military, the first rolled out in Kirby Dick’s documentary The Invisible War is the most startling: More than 20 percent of active-duty female soldiers are sexually assaulted. For potential recruits, that’s a far more discouraging statistic than anything combat-related, yet for the victims, rape is only the first in a series of traumas that are institutional as much as they are medical and psychological. Given the subject matter, it would be easy enough for The Invisible War to be a devastating piece of agitprop, but Dick goes well beyond that standard, constructing a thorough piece of investigative journalism that gets scores of victims on the record. As the title suggests, this is no small feat: Rape victims are often unwilling to come forward in civilian life, but in a closed system like the military, where the perpetrators are sometimes one up on the chain of command, it can be especially difficult to step into the light.
Dick has rallied for transparency in exposés of the MPAA ratings board (This Film Is Not Yet Rated) and gays on Capital Hill (Outrage), and he took on institutionalized sexual abuse in Twist Of Faith, his corrosive profile of a man molested by a Catholic priest as a teenager. The Invisible War is of a piece with his previous films, but makes a stronger, more meticulous case than any of them, balancing testimony and statistics without lapsing too often into glib commentary or straw-man argument. Seizing on a case brought against the U.S. government by former service members, Dick collects story after story of horrific sexual abuse and the never-ending ripple effects of PTSD. Many of the victims come from military families and consider their fellow soldiers “brothers and sisters” from boot camp, which deepens the violation even before their reports go uninvestigated or their wounds untreated.
Though Dick focuses heavily on just a few women, The Invisible War builds to a stunning montage of victim after victim telling their story to the camera without pseudonyms or silhouettes. Their courage in testifying openly relates ironically to their courage in enlisting in the first place, and the film advocates for them strongly and with great sensitivity. Dick’s habit of contrasting their stories with military stooges spouting policy feels cheap at times, because the military reps are doomed to sound absurdly callous in that context. Yet these policies are weak and ineffectual, and their defenders underline the military brass’ tone-deafness to this issue. There’s a sense that Dick would rather be effective than fair, but The Invisible War wants to tear down walls, and sometimes a sledgehammer comes in handy.