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11.10.10

HBO's Brilliant War Doc

James Gandolfini, still best known as the therapized mobster Tony Soprano, turns the focus on veterans for Wartorn, a new documentary airing Thursday. Rebecca Dana on the making of the film and the ravages of PTSD.

If there’s one point of intersection between The Sopranos and the Civil War, it’s post-traumatic stress. You can only go around blowing people’s faces off for so long before it starts to get to you, and that may help to explain why so many veterans feel such an immediate connection with the actor James Gandolfini.

The brooding, bulb-nosed Gandolfini, who played therapized mobster Tony Soprano in the HBO series, has produced a number of documentaries for the network looking at the long-term effects of war on soldiers. His latest is Wartorn: 1861 to 2010, which examines the affliction known over the course of the last 149 years as cowardice, hysteria, melancholia, shell-shock, combat fatigue, and eventually PTSD, when it was finally recognized as a legitimate condition just 30-odd years ago.

PTSD is a difficult subject to render on video for much the same reason doctors took so long to recognize it as real. The effects of war are typically obvious. It leaves torn-up bodies, bombed-out buildings, coffins, carcasses, and rivers of blood. But PTSD is invisible—until the moment a Midwestern farm boy drinks up the courage to press his dog tag against his forehead with the mouth of a handgun and shoot.

For Wartorn, which airs Thursday night on HBO, filmmakers Jon Alpert, Ellen Goosenberg Kent, and Matthew O’Neill overcome the difficulty of showing PTSD with plenty of gut-wrenching telling. Sufferers of the condition, which afflicts 20 percent of veterans according to one study, talk candidly (or, in the case of the deceased, speak through letters, family members, and old public testimony) about how it’s affected their lives.

“I came back as a raving lunatic,” says a veteran of World War II.

“I was having nightmares. I still have bad nightmares. And it takes all goddamn night to kill somebody.”

“I have three boys I haven’t seen in 25 years.”

Here’s the mother of the young man who got drunk and then shot himself in the forehead after two tours of duty in Iraq: “The United States Army turned my son into a killer…They forgot to un-train him to take that urge to kill away from him.”

And here’s the young man: “I’m not a good person. I have done bad things. I have taken lives. Now it’s time to take mine.”

“These soldiers are at a rather courageous crossroads,” says Alpert, an Emmy-winning documentarian who’s worked widely in war zones, including Iraq and Afghanistan. “They have suffered so much from the stigma of PTSD, from the fact that it’s a mental as opposed to a physical ailment, that they have decided the only way to make sure other people don’t suffer the way they have is to start talking about it.”

“It’s hard for me even to describe how unpleasant it is for [Gandolfini] to be on camera,” Alpert says. “He would prefer it if he were the invisible man.”

And what got them to start talking?

“Jim,” Alpert says. “People feel like they know him. First of all, he’s very sincere in his concern. Second, he’s been in their living rooms every Sunday for five years. He portrays a big tough guy who was psychologically wounded by the things he’s had to do and he’s seen. As a result of that, they’re ready to talk. From the lowest ranking service member to the top generals, they opened up very quickly to him.”

Gandolfini lumbers into scene after scene of Wartorn, transmuted now from patient to listener. Visually, this move off the couch doesn’t suit him. He looks overstuffed into the straight-backed chairs of military offices, his hangdog face stern as he absorbs the stories all these people seem suddenly eager to tell.

“It’s hard for me even to describe how unpleasant it is for him to be on camera,” Alpert says. “He would prefer it if he were the invisible man. That’s the role he would like most instead of the roles that he’s had.”

Emotionally, and in every other way, Gandolfini-as-therapist works eerily well. The actor’s efforts to help sufferers of PTSD by shining a light on their condition are also helped by recent developments in the military’s own approach to discussing and treating it . The Department for Veterans Affairs now has a National Center for PTSD. This week, Eric Shinseki, the retired general who is now secretary of Veterans Affairs, wrote a column explaining PTSD and its treatments.

Those treatments range from standard therapy to new drugs to 10 minutes of Tetris. But key to any treatment plan is a wider acceptance that PTSD isn’t cowardice but a real affliction, suffered widely.

When The Sopranos went off the air, some critics wondered if Gandolfini would ever be able to break away from his iconic portrayal of the damaged mobster. Since then, he has given several acclaimed performances, but for the most part remains fixed in our minds as Tony Soprano. Which turns out to be a good thing for the swelling ranks of suffering veterans, telling their stories now for the first time. “Very very self-conscious” or not, Gandolfini seems uniquely suited to hearing them.

Rebecca Dana is a senior correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.