The Islamic State dominates our headlines. It’s impossible to ignore the stories that circulate every week, on the front pages of our newspapers and popping up on our timelines and newsfeeds. Despite the seemingly endless wealth of information and current events, it can be difficult to find a comprehensive version of the “truth,” or a place to begin learning about the complicated subject matter. “Vice Special Report: Fighting ISIS” which aired on HBO on Jan. 31 offers a balanced, well-formulated introduction to what ISIS is, how it formed, how it’s operating today and how other groups are fighting against it.
The report begins with old footage of American politicians — including an extra-long shot of former president George W. Bush — and then an interview with a captured ISIS jihadist (name withheld). VICE correspondent Ben Anderson explores the build-up and subsequent execution of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and talks to members of rebel groups in Iraq, captured ISIS jihadists in Kurdistan and even military forces in Syria. The one-on-one interviews are intriguing but too short; there’s not enough time given after the build-up to let us fully establish a read on any single figure, including a captured Sunni Jihadist (name withheld) and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
The balance between the emotional pull of the subject matter and the focus on mapping out an informational and accurate portrayal of the history of ISIS and its current conflicts is aided by Anderson’s journalistic style in interviewing his subjects. He is calm and professional, and presses for answers that are more complex than the ones he is initially given.
Anderson pushes his interviewees on what the future looks like, looking at it especially through a global lens as the Western world doubles down on fighting terrorism transnationally. One of the tensest moments of the special is when the journalist asks, “Is the U.S. more likely to face an attack from Iraqi soil today than it was under Saddam (Hussein)?” The short answer, according to multiple sources, is yes.
Though the percussive soundtrack throughout the report is usually unnecessary, as the narration is fascinating enough, it’s only mildly distracting. The audio of the interviews is clear and clean, and the voiceover is sharp, flowing smoothly over the busier background noise. The emphasis isn’t on Anderson’s travels into a dangerous area — though there are a few times in which he has to move due to circumstances involving sniper gunfire — but rather on the different groups of people he interviews.
“Fighting ISIS” has a rating of TV-MA, and for good reason. There’s footage of people being forced down on their faces with bags over the heads, people falling from gunshots, beheadings and children putting guns against the heads of prisoners. There are also a few minutes of interviews with women who have been victims of ISIS, giving space to show how families are torn apart by the conflicts. Luckily, these shots and interviews don’t read as manipulative — though they easily could. They’re difficult to watch because of the fact that there is often nothing between the camera and the horrific events taking place; because they’re not overdramatic or exploitative, there’s nothing to point to to release the tension of those shots.
Though the report as a whole is fairly comprehensive, the end feels gimmicky. It returns to familiar rhetoric about terrorism and 9/11, news clips about the Nov. 2015 Paris attacks and an ominous warning about the future looking grim. Though “Fighting ISIS” isn’t a superbly fleshed out representation of the battle against ISIS and those who are on the front lines, it’s a fair introduction.