August 19, 2008

Take Advantage of Another Chance to View the Inspirational Road Home

By Michael Janusonis

There were so many films in this year's Rhode Island International Film Festival -- 289 to be exact -- that only a few got a chance to be reviewed in these pages. Most played for one screening and, unless they were among the lucky few to be picked up for national theatrical or TV distribution, won't be seen in these parts again.

Fortunately, there's a second chance for the locally produced The Road Home, Phil Hopper's frank, understanding and touching documentary about the soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with terrible wounds that required amputation of limbs and left them to face very different futures than the ones they had envisioned. The film will be shown at 7 tonight, with free admission, at the Jamestown Public Library.

The Road Home covers a lot of territory in its hour-long running time, but it does so in a detailed way that maintains interest. We meet several soldiers who explain in frank terms how they were injured, the difficult situations they must now deal with on a daily basis and how their injuries have changed their lives.

But this is no downer of a movie. Rather The Road Home is inspirational as we see how these wounded warriors refuse to let their injuries stop them from leading full lives. Hopper has included TV news footage of national events regarding the wars and some material filmed in Iraq itself. But Hopper said he didn't want to do "a Michael Moore" kind of film that tried to grab headline dirt.

So, at the center of The Road Home we see the soldiers training to take part in the New York City Marathon as part of the Achilles Track Club, which enlists disabled people in athletic events. "Our goal is to teach a sport to Iraq returnees and give them a goal," says Dick Traum, founder of Achilles more than 25 years ago, and the first person to run the New York City Marathon on a prosthetic leg.

Despite the loss of an arm, a leg or even two, these wounded soldiers from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan take part in the Marathon on hand-cranked low-rider bikes, beaming as they cross the finish line in triumph, later taking part in an awards ceremony organized by members of the New York Fire Department.

But The Road Home is more than just a triumph-of-the-spirit sports movie. Hopper, who grew up in Middletown and is now an assistant professor of film and television at the New York Institute of Technology, follows the soldiers after the Marathon, too. Some things are working out for them, some are not.

Jose Ramos has found a girlfriend and is studying Islam at a Virginia college. Ramon Guitard, who has lost a leg, refuses to give in to his injuries, even tackling a climbing wall while trying to help his wife and children at home. Leslie Smith, who narrates the film, faces new hurdles with problems from her prosthetic foot and loss of sight in one eye. Danielle Green-Byrd, who lost a hand, is studying to become a school counselor in Chicago. Joe Bowser thinks he has found a new life with a new woman, although a postscript tells us that the fairy tale ending he was hoping for is not to be.

There also are tales of a soldier battling the government bureaucracy for better benefits and of the scandal that erupts at Walter Read Army Medical Center in the middle of filming, when poor conditions there make national headlines.

Although The Road Home didn't take home any prizes at the Rhode Island festival, Hopper is hoping for a sale to one of the cable TV networks or a spot on next season's PBS show POV. I hope so. It deserves to be seen.

Injured soldiers' prosthetics the day before the 2005 New York City Marathon in The Road Home. Phil Hopper

Sgt. Joe Bowser in the amputee physical therapy unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, May 2004. Phil Hopper [email protected] / (401) 277-7276

Originally published by Michael Janusonis, Journal Arts Writer.

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