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HBO Brings Iraq Losses Home

More than 25,000 service men and women have been injured in Iraq, and many have lost arms and legs. HBO surveys the emotional toll that comes with the physical damage in a new documentary airing Sept. 9 called Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq.

After Baghdad ER—Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s searing, bloody documentary about the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq—Sheila Nevins, HBO’s documentary chief, wondered what lives of the severely injured soldiers were like when they came home. James Gandolfini, who was finishing episodes of The Sopranos, was active in the USO and had been visiting injured vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

With Alpert, Nevins and Gandolfini set out to survey the physical and emotional costs. For Alive Day Gandolfini interviews 10 soldiers in a bare bones theater with spare lighting. Nevins talks to B&C’s Marisa Guthrie about getting disinvited to Walter Reed, what surprised her about the project and red carpets.

While Alive Day is much different structurally than Baghdad ER, is it a sequel to that film?

After Bagdad ER, I guess we were all filled with this notion of you either make it or you don’t make it and when you do make it, very often you make it in worse shape than in almost any other war because there have been so many extraordinary medical advances. I guess the question that stayed with us was: what happens when you come home? And we knew that Jim was interested in Iraq, and we knew that his heart was with the soldiers. We were also interested in how they lived with the extensive injuries that they had suffered.

Originally, you intended to film Gandolfini interviewing soldiers at Walter Reed.

Jim had {been to} Walter Reed and the soldiers had a great affinity for him. He could sit by their bedside and he could hold their hands. It was very touching to watch this, and so we asked if we could come back to Walter Reed with Jim {to} film there for a day in November [2006].

We had permission to do that and then the Friday of Columbus Day weekend we just received an e-mail saying that the project was on hold. And then about two weeks later the Walter Reed exposé came out in The Washington Post and we realized that we were not going to be insiders there.

Do you think Alive Day Memories will be difficult for viewers to watch?

It would be wrong to say that it was a depressing film because in fact, the spirit of these soldiers was much more positive and energized and tragic at the same time than anything I ever expected. I mean, I would be a help of misery and sorrow without any energy to go on, but they are not.

I realized what courage was. I realized what survival was. I realized what patriotism was. Who would ever think you would learn about patriotism in a film like this? It’s odd when you just take a picture of reality, what comes back.

We didn’t make this film to show people the carnage of war. We made it to show the reality of war and the reality of surviving the war and if there’s carnage there, well, there’s MSG in Chinese food.

Were you surprised that Gandolfini was such a capable interviewer?

I thought they would be intimidated by Jim. I thought celebrity might terrify young men and women. It sure terrifies me. I thought they wouldn’t be proud of their wounds. I thought I had made a mistake in putting these people together in the theater. I thought I never would care about America and the flag again. I thought all those thoughts and then I un-thought them.

But you’re around celebrities all the time.

Sure, but I’m constantly intimidated. I hate red carpets. I always go in the back way. It just gives me the creeps.