When last seen (by me, anyway), Steven C. Barber had just decided to defer buying a Lexus. Instead, he invested his savings in a Variety “for your consideration” ad to boost his 2012 film Until They Are Home, about the recovery of military remains from the World War II battle of Tarawa.
Barber still doesn’t have that new car (and the film got no Oscar nominations). But he does have another cinematic labor of love on his hands — a new documentary that reminds us, of all things, that the United States military has been a significant contributor to sound journalism through its in-house publication, Stars and Stripes.
Called The World’s Most Dangerous Paper Route, the film is directed by Matthew Hausle and counts Barber among its producers, through his Vanilla Fire company. To be clear, the documentary is authorized and supported by Stars and Stripes, which provided its budget of about $285,000. It is the work of self-professed fans.
Yet the movie seems no more lopsided than, say, Page One: Inside The New York Times or The Fourth Estate, both of which provided a generally admiring look at The New York Times, with considerable help from the paper and its staff. And it delivers an almost stunning reminder that US Armed Forces, perhaps alone among the world’s military organizations, have been supporting independent-minded reporters, editors, photographers and cartoonists continuously since 1942, and intermittently since a handful of Union soldiers printed the first Stars and Stripes in 1861.
When Gen. George Patton ordered Stars and Stripes cartoonist Bill Mauldin to ease up on the satirical barbs, commander Dwight Eisenhower told Mauldin to keep at it. When troop morale began to collapse in Vietnam, Stars and Stripes chronicled the disintegration—and is commended for its honesty by Gen. Wesley Clark, a Vietnam War officer who is one of many veterans, high and low, who appear in World’s Most Dangerous Paper Route.
The film is narrated by Steve Kroft, the 60 Minutes correspondent who got his start on Stars and Stripes in the Vietnam era. “We were not required to salute anybody,” Kroft notes of the correspondents’ fierce sense of independence. Many journalists, particularly photographers, died working for the paper. “You get more time down-range,” explains Laura Rauch, a writer-photographer who reported from Afghanistan, and took memorable medivac photo of badly wounded infantryman Kyle Hockenberry.
The picture focused on Hockenberry’s body, tattooed with the words: “For those I love I will sacrifice.” He became a triple amputee, but lived (and is interviewed by Barber’s team in a ‘smart-home’ provided with help from Gary Sinese).
World’s Most Dangerous Paper Route isn’t on the Oscar short list: Its premiere two months ago at the Newseum in Washington, D. C., didn’t amount to a qualifying run. How it will be distributed is still an open question. Barber said he is currently shopping it on the Netflix-Hulu-Discovery circuit. That it will make him enough money to buy a new Lexus seems unlikely.
“It’s an honorable, decent, kind film about honorable, decent, kind people,” said Barber, during a brief telephone interview on Friday.
But his latest documentary is actually a bit more than that. Once seen, it won’t let the viewer forget that twin passions — movies and journalism — can be a very potent mix indeed.