(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on November 1, 2012.)
If last month’s Beauty is Embarrassing was my favorite documentary of 2012, High Ground has become the first documentary of the year that I demand that everyone watch; it should be required viewing for anyone and everyone with a television or access to a movie theater. High Ground invites you to walk in the shoes of 11 wounded Iraq War veterans and one Gold Star Mother as they team together to take on Mount Lobuche in the Himalayas. Some do it to conquer their personal demons; some do to spite their injuries; some do it for those they lost; all of them do it to heal.
The 2nd Iraq War has come and gone, with our troops still being deployed in other parts of the Middle East. The media tends to only show the glory or the tragedy; what they don’t cover is the aftermath. Troops are coming home with varying states of emotional, psychological, and physical damage, and it seems that we are ill-equipped to deal with the problems. It also seems that we want to sweep these cases under the rug and just forget about them. For those of us without any ties to the military, it’s often easy to dismiss the growing concerns about our returning troops, just as long as we say “Thank you for your service” when we see them and give them a handshake. But is that enough? High Ground shows that it is, indeed, not enough; these people sacrificed so much for us and they desperately need the help they seek.
This motley crew of servicemen and women come from all branches of the military with different injuries. We see plenty of scars and stumps, but we also see just how much has been inflicted upon their emotions. Some of them can’t connect with the “real world” and have lost their purpose; others hold baggage with them that no human is capable of carrying. Training to conquer Mount Lobuche and making the journey up the mountain has renewed their flagging spirits, but will it give them the peace of mind they’re seeking? Will it give them the okay to finally “belong” to the world and move about in it?
High Ground contains some of the most beautiful, moving imagery I’ve ever seen immortalized on visual media. The swirling virga coming off of the mountains, the various peaks and the lakes that lie beneath them, the terrain that our heroes (I use that term here to describe these people as they are deserving of it) have to walk over with painful steps – it’s all captured beautifully by director Michael Brown, who also serves as the director of photography. He also captures these warriors at their most vulnerable, alternating wartime video footage of some of them with their tearful confessions to the camera. The hearts and souls of these men and women are on naked display here, because it’s all they have left – one person doesn’t even have a home to go to when this trek is over. But with grim determination and the spirit with which they fought so bravely during the war, they make their choice to leave their mark on the world by conquering the mountain. It may not just be a mountain they’re conquering; it may be a part of themselves that they seek to silence and defeat.
Our soldiers are still fighting for freedom in various parts of the world. While most put on a brave face and deal with their demons privately, others are still in need of help. Please watch this movie and see what Michael Brown has to show you: his portrait of warriors whose wounds stretch deeper than the flesh. I cannot stress the importance of this movie enough; it is stirring, it is moving, it is emotional, and it’s a kick to the gut that everyone must take. If we all knew the type of pain that our soldiers come home bearing, the world would be a better place. We need to make it a better place, as these soldiers and many others have sacrificed a great deal for our opportunity to do so. High Ground should be required viewing this year; put it at the top of your list.