Drawing an unlikely connection between two topics that occupy a lot of the current media landscape -- immigration and the war in Iraq -- "The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez" follows the journey of the first U.S. soldier killed in the invasion of Iraq. Born in Guatemala, Gutierrez eventually made his way to the United States to become a "green card solider," promised a fast track to citizenship by enlisting in the military.
Mournful and engrossing, the film traces Gutierrez's life through the people he knew and the places he lived, as if Swiss-born, Berlin-based director Heidi Specogna is searching for his ghost, traces of the why of his life amid the who and the where.
Specogna respectfully and intelligently engages in her search, never teetering into the obvious didacticism that such hot-button subject matter often invites. The matter-of-fact narration, plainly conveying such information as the underlying U.S. intervention in the long civil war in Guatemala that contributed to Gutierrez's chaotic childhood, has a lack of affect that makes the film's effect more direct. A fellow Marine's description of the exact moment of Gutierrez's death is crushing in its intimacy, both for the emotions of the teller and the excruciating tale being told.
A film made by Europeans about someone from Guatemala who traveled through Mexico to get to the States only to be killed in Iraq, there's only one place "The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez" could have as its real focus -- the bold, brash and beautiful U.S. of A. For better of worse, it doesn't get any more American than that.
"The Short Life of Jose Antonio Gutierrez." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Grande, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown L.A. (213) 617-0268.