11.10.08

Phil Donahue Returns to TV (Tomorrow)

The talk show legend talks about his four-year struggle to get his film about an American soldier distributed.

For the past four years, talk show legend Phil Donahue has been working on Body of War, his first foray into documentary filmmaking. It tells the story of Tomas Young, a soldier named who took a bullet to the spine in his first week of service in Iraq and remains paralyzed from the chest down. The project has been praised at film festivals, awarded Best Documentary by the National Board of Review, and short-listed for an Academy Award.

But Donahue has been unable to find a major distributor to carry the movie into theaters. So far, he’s relied on his own connections to promote the movie—like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who wrote the music for the film. On Tuesday, Veterans’ Day, Body of War will finally find an audience on the Sundance Channel. Donahue spoke to The Daily Beast about his relentless efforts to get Americans to look at what they don’t want to see, his anger at the mainstream media, and why Obama should reinstate the draft.

“If we’re ever going to go to war again, we should draft everybody, not just working-class kids. Draft the rich.”

You’ve been in television your whole life. Why make a movie now?

I honestly didn’t allow myself to think “movie.” I’d never made a movie. The movie game is a real rush. It’s a contact sport. It’s not for sissies. But these past three and a half years—coming up on four years now—we’ve had an up-close view of this young man trying to pull himself up from the ashes. Why aren’t we more aware of this pain? Americans know that people are sacrificing, but they don’t see it. They can’t feel it. Maybe that’s why less than 10% of us revealed that the war was the major influence on their vote.

Do you think Obama will change how we think about the war?

Yes, I absolutely do. Barack Obama does not bring the pride and the need to save face that was so apparent within this present administration. The people in our film, Tomas and Tomas’ mother, believe that one more death in Iraq is morally indefensible. They also believe that if we’re ever going to go to war again, that we should draft everybody, not just working-class kids. Draft the rich. We’ve got to get rid of this.

So you believe Obama should reinstate the draft?

Well it would certainly be more fair than what’s happening now. You know, if Prince Harry can go to war, c’mon, Vietnam—what is this? There’s no greater baloney than this whole, “America, America, be strong,” and then send other people’s children to war to make your case.

Why do you think you haven’t found a distributor?

Iraq documentaries are playing to empty seats. This is no longer a matter of interest to the press corps or the American people, apparently. Body of War has not sold popcorn.

But Michael Moore sells popcorn.

Michael Moore is the Babe Ruth of this genre. And my hat is off to him. I think his films are just very, very clever, and they’re also filled with humor. People are wobbly when they come out of our film—that’s a big difference. Body of War makes you wince, and we know that. What this film is saying is, maybe we should be wincing about what’s happening and the number of people coming home in boxes here, maybe that ought to make you wince, and we’re sorry than this is somewhat difficult and in many ways abrasive and provokes a lot of discomfort. Well, we’re sorry, but we think we should see the pain. Because this is what journalism should be. I mean, no one is talking about this war, no one is thinking about this war.

What should journalists be doing?

Show the pain. Don’t sanitize the war. The president is saying we can’t take pictures of the coffins and the whole press goes “okay.” If you’re going to send a nation to war, we have a responsibility to show our fellow countrymen, our fellow Americans, what other families are doing to become part of the American experience, and obey the Commander-in Chief, obey his lead.

Did the all the election coverage distract us from the war, or is it something more?

This is a hard call. Sarah Palin was what has to be called a “Holy Cow” story, to paraphrase Bob Woodward. You know, all these years, we’ve had all these males stride mightily towards that big brass ring. And all of a sudden, in 2008 a woman comes out from behind a tree, carrying a gun, and holy cow, she gets within one 72-year-old heartbeat away from the presidency. This is a great story. It’s got everything: First Dude, pregnant teenage daughter, a state most of us don’t think about, way up there.

You said Obama will change how Americans think about the war. Will he change how the media thinks too?

Well, the protection that the media offered Bush is gone now. This war was a huge defeat for the American journalist establishment. This is embarrassing. We didn’t do any kind of pushback. We just took the handouts, we took the generals who were coming from Rumsfeld’s office directly to CNN and Fox and telling us the strategy we were executing in Iraq. We didn’t know that.

But we’re still going to have corporate media. And you know, the corporate media doesn’t like dissent. It’s just not good for business, and that’s why you have so little pushback to his war. Every major metropolitan newspaper in this country supported this war. Think about that. We have no more evidence, we need no more evidence than that, to understand corporate media is literally undermining democracy. General Electric, News Corp, all of them, Disney, Time Warner—you know, they don’t want to oppose the President who’s calling a war.

And now here we are. 160,000 troops remaining in Iraq, and more than 4,000 killed. For what? For how long? And what have we read recently about Afghanistan? Tomas, the subject of our film, says he watches TV and he just sees Britney Spears getting into a limousine and out of a limousine.

Miriam Datskovsky is the assistant editor at The Daily Beast. Her work has also appeared in Conde Nast Portfolio, New York magazine, and nymag.com.