LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Phil Donahue met thousands of intriguing people during three decades as a top TV talk show host, but it was an inert Iraq war veteran in a hospital bed that led him to the most compelling story in his life.
“I met Tomas at Walter Reed and he wasn’t communicating anything,” Donahue remembers of his visit to the Washington DC military hospital. “He didn’t meet me, I met him. He was totally medicated. As I stood next to his bed, his mother explained the gravity of his injuries.”
U.S. Army soldier Tomas Young was paralyzed from the chest down at 25 years of age after a bullet pierced his spine in his first week serving in Iraq. Donahue, now 72, couldn’t get Young out of his head and set the wheels in motion to make his first documentary, “Body of War,” now showing in U.S. theaters.
Donahue and filmmaker Ellen Spiro tell in graphic detail the challenges of the young man in his wheelchair — his pain, frustration and difficulties managing bodily functions. One scene shows his mother inserting a catheter so he can urinate on a road trip.
But Donahue and Spiro don’t stop at the physical aspects of Young’s life. They follow the veteran’s conversion into an anti-war activist as he goes on the TV news magazine “60 Minutes” and addresses church and veterans groups across the United States.
Even when he could hardly finish sentences, Young quipped “Soldiers voting for President Bush is like chickens voting for Colonel Sanders.” With statements like that, Donahue and Spiro knew they had a star.
“This is a huge sacrifice,” Donahue told Reuters ahead of the Los Angeles premiere. “This man can’t walk. You know, prime of life and we don’t see this. And I just think it is wrong. If you are going to send people, we have the responsibility to show the sacrifice that is being made.”
But Donahue wanted to go further than simply illustrating the hardships endured by Young to drive home his own opposition to the war, which has killed over 4,000 U.S. troops and injured 29,000 in five years.
“I didn’t just want a film of this young man struggling,” Donahue said. “We wanted people to see how we got here. How did this happen?”
He decided “Body of War” should have a parallel track showing the U.S. Congress voting in October 2002 to give President Bush authorization to go to war against Iraq.
Donahue reviewed more than 100 hours of debate in Congress on the vote and noticed a pro-war script taking hold with phrases like: “Inaction is worse than action” and “A smoking gun will become a mushroom cloud.”
The star of the political storyline is then octogenarian Democratic Senator Robert Byrd, the longest serving member in the history of the Senate and opponent of the war who calls the 2002 vote the most important in his career.
“Byrd makes the case that if you scare the people, they will always come along and do the bidding of the leaders,” said Donahue, his blue eyes bulging with anger over the proceedings.
When Donahue met Young a few years later, he started thinking about the old Byrd and the youngster Young getting together to talk, and he makes that happen, providing one of the most poignant scenes in the film in which they review the historic Senate vote.
Throughout his long career on TV, Donahue hosted over 7,000 one-hour daily shows and pioneered a talk show format that thrives today, but he never had designs on documentaries and is surprised how much his first film moved him.
“It has been a singular experience of my lifetime,” he said. “I have never been this close to something this real, this challenging, this complicated, this political.”
(Reporting by Mary Milliken; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)
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