Review: The Body of an American Is Ambitious but Unfocused

Michael Ensminger
Michael McNeill (left) and Sean Scrutchins in The Body of an American.
The Body of an American, now receiving a regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company, isn't large enough to hold its own ambitions. At the center of this two-man play is one of those photographs that etch themselves on our collective memory, but the script lacks focus.

Images have power, and most of the images of war that Americans see on the news are carefully selected and edited to sanitize reality. Many believe it was uncensored photographs from Vietnam that strengthened the anti-war movement here and helped bring about the end of the war: the naked girl running down a road with napalm burning its way into her body, the pile of corpses after the My Lai massacre. Partly because of this, the second Bush administration rigidly controlled coverage of the invasion of Iraq, and much of it was done by journalists embedded with the troops who were hardly unbiased or free to explore. In addition, editors in this country — unlike their European counterparts — tend to be reluctant to publish graphic shots.

One image that did reach the public and influence United States policy, however, was taken by photojournalist Paul Watson in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. It shows a soldier, Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland, whose helicopter had been shot down and who was being dragged nearly naked along the street by a jeering mob that was hitting and kicking his prone body with horrifying relish. The photo won a Pulitzer Prize the next year. Some years later, the battle of Mogadishu became the subject of the popular movie Black Hawk Down.

But Watson's photo exerted power beyond that. It fed the stream of public revulsion that caused President Bill Clinton to withdraw U.S. troops from Somalia. That swift withdrawal is believed to have emboldened Osama bin Laden, who concluded that the Americans were easy to scare off. Watson himself has said that he sees a direct line between his work and 9/11. The failure in Somalia was also part of the reason that Clinton did not intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda. 

Of course, Cleveland's horrific death and mutilation didn't alter the course of history for long, as the four soldiers recently killed in Niger remind us. The United States is currently training local militias and hunting terrorists —while possibly creating thousands more — in over half a dozen African countries, including Somalia.

These are huge, soul-searing topics, and Watson is a fascinating figure, a man who has worked in several war zones and written eloquently about his experiences. But The Body of an American focuses less on his thoughts about war, peace and governance than on his relationship with Dan O'Brien, the writer who sought him out and eventually wrote this play. An adjunct literature professor, O'Brien is somewhat worshipful of the older man's experience. Watson talks about a church in Rwanda where desperate Tutsis sought shelter and were mercilessly slaughtered, and how approaching the church afterward was like approaching Auschwitz; O'Brien talks about his writing ambitions and his troubled family life. You see the disparity. Eventually, the two men meet on a trip to the Arctic and find some commonality.

As O'Brien, Sean Scrutchins works manfully with what he's given to say and imbues his character with some life. Perhaps the dynamic between the two would have been stronger if Michael McNeill had played Watson a little more dangerously, as a man on a knife edge between cynicism and despair. But ultimately I couldn't figure out why O'Brien was in the story at all. In the shadow of the earth-shattering events that Watson witnessed, O'Brien's concerns seem trivial, and the play becomes a study of two guys bleeding into each other's wounds. Watson himself touches on important issues, but he doesn't bring any particular eloquence or insight to them in the script.

Yet you know the real-life Watson could. Here's his account of coming on Cleveland's body in Where War Lives, the book he published in 2007:

"I had no idea who the corpse was, and after weeks of looking at dead and maimed Somali women and children, I despised men like him who killed from the sky. Until now. Here we were on the same ground, in the blowing dirt and sour stench of fetid trash, on this nameless Somali side street where neither of us belonged, and for the first time, it felt like it was us against them. And there was nothing I could do to help him. Each new disgrace sent a ripple of celebration through the crowd, which undulated like a wave, feeding on its own frenzy. The men controlling the heavy ropes that bound the airman's wrists, stretching his arms high above his head, rolled the body back and forth in the hammering white light of a Mogadishu morning. The dead man danced with his tormenters like a broken marionette."

The Body of an American, presented by Curious Theatre Company through December 9, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524,