What makes war reporters and photographers return over and over again to the killing fields? What drives them?
Towards the end of Dan O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical and remarkable The Body of An American, his putative playwright and alter ego, Dan, stumbling in his quest to finish a play about ghosts, describes witnessing the twin towers come down on 9/11. `I told myself, if there’s going to be a war, I will go.’ But he never went, `because I didn’t consider it the right war.’
His listener is the man he’s been admiring from afar and now meeting up with in the frozen wastes of northern Canada, war photographer, Paul Watson whose photo of a dead American soldier being dragged by a mob through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993 won him a Pulitzer prize. To Dan, Paul’s war reportage career denotes courage. And even, he adds, altruism.
Paul’s response is cautionary. It has nothing to do with that. Rather the opposite, the bolstering of self esteem – at least initially. He’s now in the third stage. Having covered the world’s trouble spots with a camera and the one arm he was born with at birth, he now follows the Inuits.
In the end, The Body of an American is, however, not so much an anatomy of man’s depressing inhumanity to man, their real life friendship or even ethical positions of war photography responsibility – although accompanied by a selection of Watson’s actual photos, that is never very far away. O’Brien’s writing – fast, staccato, almost `gonzo’-like in the style of Hunter S Thompson – describes a relationship of two contrasting but similar men, each haunted by ghosts and driven by compulsions.
It also offers a peach of an opportunity to the two actors who not only play Dan and Paul but a dozen or so other characters.
William Gaminara, unrecognisable from his Prof Leo Dalston of Silent Witness fame is magnificent as the grizzled photographer and is beautifully matched by Damien Molony’s younger, disciple-like Dan.
A mesmerising if sometimes bewildering 90 minutes in James Dacre’s dynamic but over-paced production, it rounds off Christopher Haydon’s impressive `American Lives’ season at the Gate.