Oscar nomination day can be a clarifying experience for viewers who, overwhelmed by the glut of December movie releases, suddenly have a guide to which movies they should actually see. My advice: Scroll way down that list to the documentaries and see The Invisible War.
It’s a movie about an incredibly difficult subject: rape in the U.S. military, where sexual assault rates are much higher than in the civilian population, where the culture discourages reporting those rapes, and where, even when reported, prosecutions often just don’t happen. But The Invisible War isn’t just a great movie because it has a heavy and important topic. It’s great because of how it handles it.
First, the movie gives a voice to victims, and in doing so, it methodically shows how sexual assault is driving people who loved their work out of the military. Producer Amy Ziering says that the movie’s crew reached out through Veterans Affairs centers and worked to make sure that the assault survivors whose stories they put on screen would have support, both from their friends and families and from the movie’s crew after the movie came out.
Second, it’s a movie that includes men: as survivors of sexual assault, as people who are struggling to provide their partners with the support they need, and who have had their own faith in the military damaged by chain-of-command rape. The Invisible War presents rape as something other than simply a women’s issue, and that’s significant.
And finally, like some of 2012’s other great documentaries (Central Park Five, which is not nominated, and How To Survive a Plague, which is), it’s a damning portrayal of bureaucracy. You cannot walk away from The Invisible War without feeling that the military has totally failed to protect service members from assault, failed to get them support, and failed to get them justice. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed such a fascinating exercise in denial as when Dr. Kaye Whitley, who headed the Defense Department’s sexual assault response efforts, insists on camera that the system works just fine. There are a lot of movies you can watch in the coming weeks that will help you win your Oscar pool. But The Invisible War matters more.