‘The Invisible War’ And How Movies Can Change Policy

I’ve been writing about The Invisible War, Kirby Dick’s documentary about the sexual assault epidemic in the military, since I saw it at Sundance last year. And now that it’s been nominated for an Academy Award, Dick and I sat down to discuss the movie’s impact, which Dick said had been a surprise:

Even before Hagel’s promise, The Invisible War was getting traction within the military itself, where it’s become a training tool and an agent of cultural change. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh screened The Invisible War for a meeting of wing commanders in November. And the rank and file are seeing the movie as well. Dick says that a distributor he works with who sells movies to the military and other institutions estimates that 235,000 service members—or nearly 10 percent of the 2.9 million members of the active and reserve armed forces—saw The Invisible War in 2012.

“The military itself is using the film for sexual-assault training, in part because, of course, they have no tools,” Dick said. “Eighty-five percent of those [viewers] are men. I think men seeing this is the real game changer, too. I think the film, not only on a policy level but on a cultural level, [is changing] the military. What people would joke about, you see this film and you don’t joke about it anymore.”

For all Dick is shocked by the failures of legislators and the military to act sooner, and by the Washington press corps for failing to investigate sexual assaults at Marine Barracks Washington—“There are documents, there is a lot of stuff there,” he said—he remains hopeful that the military can change, and that the rest of society can as well.

“The military’s done this before with racism. They could do it with this issue. And they could actually become a leader on the issue of sexual assault for the entire society,” he said. “There’s such divisiveness within this country, and especially around the military. There are a lot of issues with the military. But I think it’s a wonderful thought to think that civilians in society will look to the military as having been a leader in helping to reduce sexual assault across the country.”

It’s true that it’s easier—and probably better—for this to happen with documentaries than with feature films, television shows, or novels. But The Invisible War is one of the reasons I write about popular culture. You need narratives to push policy ideas forward. You need characters, be they human or fictional, to embody the impact of policies, or the lack thereof. And sometimes, people who have been deaf to the stories told by real people in their lives can hear those stories more clearly from the remove of a movie screen.

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