‘The Corporal’s Diary’: Footage shot by soldier makes for compelling film

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, September 25, 2008 1:14pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

When Army Cpl. Jonathan Santos was sent to Iraq in the fall of 2004, he took his diary and a video camera with him. You can hear in his words that he did not intend his diary-keeping to be an epitaph; he had plans and ambitions, which he was going to tackle just as soon as he got back.

Only 38 days after arriving, he was killed in a roadside attack. The diary and the videotapes were returned to his mother, Doris, who was surprised to discover her son kept a record of his life.

Those records form the basis of the locally produced “The Corporal’s Diary,” a powerful documentary in Jonathan Santos’ words. It’s only 60 minutes long, which makes an awkward length for a movie, but every minute counts.

Jonathan and his brothers and mother were living in Bellingham at the time he shipped out. As the film explains, the men in his family had a history of military service, and Jonathan — whose first tour of duty was in Haiti — was happy to join that tradition.

There is nothing especially remarkable about his videos of life in Iraq, which might be the reason they are so sad to watch. It’s just simple stuff, made poignant by its unlikely location and the death of the man holding the camera.

Some of the people in Jonathan’s videos didn’t make it either. The sole survivor of the attack, Matthew Drake, gets his own section in the film.

We see Drake as a cocky, lively guy in Jonathan’s videos, but he sustained a head wound in the attack and is seen stateside as a different person. The process of rehab, as he learns to talk and walk and perform basic functions again, could form a documentary on its own.

Jonathan’s diary entries are read aloud by his brother, an understandably difficult task but a fitting touch. Mother Doris, in her clear, thought-out response to all this, comes across as the movie’s rock — but when she finally breaks down, her message is devastating.

Directors Patricia Boiko and Laurel Spellman-Smith leave out commentary. They don’t need it. Jonathan Santos recorded the titles of the books he read in Iraq, which included “The Da Vinci Code” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “The Sirens of Titan.” In one diary entry he talks about writing a novel and maybe getting a job as a professor someday. That sort of detail, and the sense of lost promise, doesn’t need any editorializing.

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