'The Line' review: Navy SEALS doc ducks the big questions about war

Navy SEALS doc The Line ducks the big questions about war [Apple TV+ review]


The Line review: Retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher confesses in The Line, and it's chilling.
Retired Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher confesses in The Line, and it's chilling.
Photo: Apple TV+

When Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher was slapped with war crimes charges in 2018, the allegations made a public spectacle of the inexcusable, overzealous violence that had been a staple of U.S. military intervention in Iraq since the first years of the invasion post-9/11.

What followed brought the wrong kind of attention to military operations at a time when the United States needed to sell its continuing involvement in Iraq. In new Apple TV+ series The Line, directors Jeff Zimbalist and Doug Shultz adapt the podcast of the same name as a four-part documentary.

In it, we hear testimony from everyone who felt comfortable stepping forward to talk about really happened in Mosul, where Gallagher led a sniper team and committed acts that shocked his fellow war fighters. And yet the filmmakers ultimately fail to ask the questions that really matter.

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The Line review

First, a little background. In 2014, the city of Mosul in Iraq fell to terrorist group ISIS (which has so many names and splinter groups that it’s probably not entirely accurate to refer to it as a single unified fighting force from the lens of 2021). A lot of the group’s soldiers had been radicalized during the invasion of Iraq. Many were held and tortured at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

So the irony was not lost on many that America’s response to this was to send troops back into Iraq after the disastrous, destabilizing first incursion. After Mosul morphed into a stronghold for the extremists terrorizing and killing their fellow Iraqis, the city became the best detail possible for members of the military eager to prove themselves.

Perhaps I’m underselling it. The following quotes come from Navy SEALS sent into Mosul in 2016. They called ISIS members “modern-day Nazis,” and Mosul “the best deployment of our lives.” One likened the deployment to “going to the Super Bowl.”

Those quotes come from men under the command of Gallagher. The SEALs deployed to Iraq for a couple of very long weeks. And when they returned, many told the same story: Gallagher seemed like a psychopath.

Gallagher stabbed an Iraqi captive to death. He picked off civilians for fun with his sniper rifle. He was a drug addict and a thief. And he got off on causing chaos and killing people.

Gallagher faces a murder rap

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service brought up Gallagher on murder charges when these accounts made their way into the mainstream. President Donald Trump found out (and tweeted about it) at a time when Gallagher’s accusers were forbidden legally from speaking about the case in public.

Attorney Tim Parlatore had already signed on to defend Gallagher. But when Trump got wind of the case, he dispatched Marc Mukasey to take over. (Mukasey is the son of former President George W. Bush’s attorney general, and one of a fleet of ruthless, deranged lawyers Trump kept on retainer. He also worked for Rudy Giuliani).

The legal team made mincemeat out of the nervous SEALs who, one by one, lined up to share their terror at working under Gallagher. This was not going to be a resounding victory for anybody.

‘I sleep fine at night’

“We’re trained to kill bad guys … but some guys just wanna go and do it for the wrong reasons.” These are among the first words spoken in The Line. And it’s quite the pace-setting proclamation.

The man who says it is in darkness, his voice electronically altered to keep his identity a secret. That’s the first clue that Gallagher wasn’t reprimanded the way his men were hoping and that they still lived in fear of reprisals. It’s also a hint at the better documentary this could have been.

The directors of docuseries are Jeff Zimbalist (The Two Escobars, 30 for 30) and Doug Shultz (Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak). They’re both workhorses. However, neither seems equipped with the necessary deftness or empathy required to tell this story in a non-sensational fashion.

Alex Gibney, the man known for releasing an undercooked issue doc every couple of months, produced The Line, and that unfortunately proves rather telling. The Apple TV+ series followed in the wake of the successful podcast of the same name that covered the same events. And it seems like this was a deal more than a thoroughly or exactingly put together investigation.

A middle-of-the-road documentary

The Line
The documentary’s approach to investigating war crimes in Iraq proves maddening.
Photo: Apple TV+

The series utilizes a grab bag of documentary techniques. We see Errol Morris-style re-creations, archival video taken from the SEALs’ body cams and from network news, lots of needless establishing shots, talking head interviews, drone footage of whatever neighborhood the story moves to — just whatever the filmmakers think of in the moment.

It’s unremarkable, but the story is told in a gripping enough fashion to make you excited for the next chapter. That, alas, is also part of the problem. The final act of the series contains two reversals — one about the possible identity of the man Gallagher was accused of murdering in cold blood, and one about Gallagher’s guilt — that don’t sit well as last-act revelations.

Gratuitous twists made for TV

The show should have approached the final Gallagher reveal as factual from the jump in order to situate the trial as the travesty it was. But unfortunately, The Line throws it in at the end as a rug pull. It’s crass. The producers know it makes good television, and frankly a story this grotesque and sad shouldn’t just be good television.

The Line conveys very little sense that anyone really grappled with the issues at stake. Look at the SEALs who served with Gallagher for some indication of the unsupportable nature of their complaints. As they reflect on their time in Mosul, their recollections are tellingly casual about the things they witnessed that have nothing to do with Gallagher’s special cruelty.

“We would literally watch dozens of Iraqis die every day,” one says. “It was a turkey shoot, it was awesome,” says another. “This was the sexiest thing you could be doing,” and so on. The filmmakers, however, don’t press the issue. And the SEALs’ individual bloodlust and neutrality (or glee in some cases) about killing people from miles away just hangs there, unchallenged.

When Gallagher finally does confess that he killed the Iraqi captive (indeed tortured him for a few minutes, to demonstrate medical techniques to his fellow SEALs), he looks point-blank at the camera and says, “I sleep fine at night.”

The real conflict

Elsewhere in the series, Richard V. Spencer (no, not that Richard Spencer), the Secretary of the Navy under Trump, says Gallagher’s conduct “violates everything the special warfare community stands for.” Which is simply one of the most gallingly unselfconscious things anyone’s ever said. (Trump fired Spencer in 2019, partially because of the fallout from the Gallagher trial, The Line implies.)

The job of Gallagher’s SEAL team was to kill people. The problem here is that Gallagher enjoyed it. You’re not supposed to enjoy it. How the Navy plans to effectively police these things remains an open question. And the filmmakers seem, incredibly, more or less unconcerned with the implications.

They seem perfectly content to collect these memories and testimonies and let you do the work. Which would be fine, except that they let Gallagher lie to them for the entirety of his interviews. And they apparently feel zero compunction about going back and examining what happened beyond finally getting him to say it, because it never bothered him.

Not the killing, not the lying about it, not the fact that he asked his friend to perjure himself on his behalf at the trial to take blame for the murder and he did it and confessed to it later. None of this made a dent in the shells surrounding their sense of duty and morality. Not really a victory!

So many missed opportunities

Beyond that, the filmmakers don’t challenge a single assertion here. I mean, when one of the SEAL operators offers this melodramatic line — “Little did I know that wasn’t the end of combat. The real conflict was just starting.” — they just use it as a cliffhanger. They don’t then ask why it is that after having killed hundreds of Iraqis, the innocence or guilt of one man is somehow the greater challenge to decency and the more difficult crucible.

And then this particular operator, whose name is Gio, describes going to visit Gallagher in prison and testifying on his behalf at trial. That’s not what I’d call “the real conflict,” if I’m honest. He’s implying it’s because the resulting trial damaged America’s image of the Navy. But really, all that means is now people know what was unfortunately a given for men like Gallagher: You can kill with impunity when you go to a foreign country bearing the American flag.

Gallagher plays the game

Gallagher knew it, and in The Line, he proves it. Acquitted of six of the seven charges he faced in the court-martial, he didn’t serve time beyond the period he spent waiting for his trial. He wrote a book — The Man in the Arena: From Fighting ISIS to Fighting for My Freedom — and now he gets to lie to journalists, too.

He, for instance, acts incredulous when his friend, the unit’s medic, confesses to killing the Iraqi captive to get Gallagher out of jail time. Gallagher is still upset that the man brought up that he stabbed the captive, even if the medic doesn’t say that’s what killed him.

“Why did he say I stabbed him?” Gallagher asks. “Why both?”

The idea that the filmmakers caught him in this lie and didn’t ask him about it is beyond careless. They’re as afraid as the men who hid in shadow to give their testimony.

Failing to ask the important questions

Again, it’s fascinating to see a lot of these guys try — and fail — to grapple with the ideological and ethical implications of putting the Navy on trial like this. Every couple of minutes in The Line, some absurd assertion goes unexplored. Like the idea that Gallagher and his wife were being supported by the likes of Trump and Bernard Kerik. (Kerik is another Giuliani associate who, as commissioner of the NYPD, ran New York’s police force like a private army. He later faced investigation for massive corruption before going to prison for several years).

How do you maintain your innocence when the people rushing to your defense are famously corrupt? One of Gallagher’s men says he felt betrayed when Trump sided with Gallagher.

Again, that would have been the perfect time for the filmmakers to ask him what he expected. The Line had opportunity after opportunity to dig into what it truly means to serve your country these days. And the show left each one maddeningly untouched.

Watch The Line on Apple TV+

The Line premiered November 19 on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.