HBO, Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill

Jan 15, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Jon Alpert originally planned to shoot his documentary on military medicine in more than 20 different locations in Iraq. But after two days on the ground at a military hospital in Baghdad he decided not to chase the story but rather to let it unfold in front of him.

And it did. The producer-director from Downtown Community TV Center in New York spent nearly two months in Baghdad covering the heroism of the doctors and nurses fighting to save lives in Iraq. The documentary aired in May 2006 on HBO.

“There isn’t a lot of in-depth television reporting from Iraq and there needs to be a lot of it,” he said. “One of the problems is it’s hard to report from there. It’s far away and it’s really dangerous. But we were looking for a way in which Americans could understand the heroism and the sacrifices of our troops and the extraordinary cost of this war, and we thought perhaps a documentary about military medicine might do.”

Mr. Alpert approached HBO a few times over the course of two years as the war dragged on. Then in 2004 the network commissioned the project. Next, Mr. Alpert sought the cooperation of the U.S. Army, an arduous process that lasted more than six months. His crew embedded in the spring of 2005 with the 86th Combat Support Hospital.

“When we went we had a list we worked on with the Army of 20 different locations and subjects we were going to film-ambulance drivers, medi-vac units, first aid stations, convoy medic, all the way up to the most sophisticated hospital in Baghdad,” he said.

But everything changed in the first 15 minutes after the crew began shooting. “I saw my first amputation, and in the first two days we witnessed four amputations,” Mr. Alpert said. “Once you witness that you are never the same. … You begin to understand the price our soldiers are paying over in Iraq and you understand it very clearly.”

To show viewers that sacrifice, he told the story through the eyes of the doctors and nurses who fought to save lives and bodies. “The helicopters never stopped coming in delivering this cargo of broken, bent, busted-up bodies,” he said.

The Army agreed to Mr. Alpert’s change of plans to stay at the hospital and hold a mirror up to what the crew saw. Mr. Alpert has his theories on why. “We believe the people in the Army wanted the American people to know what was happening. I believe that’s why they gave us access. We were filming the cost of war but also, side by side, the effort and heroism of the war,” he said.

The film has won four Primetime Emmys.