"Ask Not" asks whether the U.S. military can afford to continue excluding volunteers whose only supposed flaw is that they refuse to deny their homosexuality.
The documentary argues that it cannot: that with two active wars, America needs the services of all its citizens.
Despite the recruitment challenges since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the military has discharged hundreds of gay personnel, including scores of linguists at a time when language skills are desperately needed by troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
"Ask Not" presents a strong argument, with compelling interviews with gay veterans booted out of the military after running afoul of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows gays to serve as long as they remain, in a phrase from a gay Coast Guard retired admiral, "silent and celibate."
The policy dates to a national debate in the early 1990s and a compromise that President Clinton struck with military leaders and others who opposed allowing homosexuals in the military at all.
"Ask Not" is a timely and balanced account of a major social issue now pending in Washington. President Obama has asked for a review of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Congressional action would be needed.
For the most part, the documentary follows veterans as they take their cause on a tour of radio talk shows and before other audiences. At a Southern college, they watch as cadets sing out a homophobic marching cadence; a caller to a talk show asks, "Would you rather be in a foxhole with John Wayne or Liberace?"
There are also gay-rights activists who try to enlist and are turned away when they announce they're homosexuals.
In Shreveport, La., a Marine recruiter keeps his cool while explaining that the federal law prohibits him from allowing the two to enlist. A sit-in ensues and the cops are called. Everybody stays polite.
The most powerful scenes involve an active-duty soldier -- his face obscured -- who is followed from a farewell lunch with friends in San Francisco to service in Iraq.
After his tour in Iraq, he goes to Paris and then the U.S. military cemetery at Normandy. With that most dramatic backdrop, he explains how deploying to a war zone has changed him.
"Before this," he says, "I'd tell you, 'I'm a gay American.' Now I'd tell you, 'I'm a soldier who happens to be gay.' "
The moral is clear: The dominant factor should be service, not sexuality.
Directed by noted documentarian Johnny Symons, whose works include several explorations of gay issues, the point of view of "Ask Not" is not in doubt.
Still, it is not preachy or unfair to the other side. Gen. Colin L. Powell and then-Sen. Sam Nunn are shown in congressional hearings during the Clinton years arguing against permitting homosexuals to serve openly.
At the time, Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Nunn was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Neither comes off as a homophobe or as retrograde.
Nunn says his views are shaped by "prudence, not prejudice." Powell says that "open homosexuality is incompatible" with military service.
"Ask Not" would have been stronger if it had reported whether Powell and Nunn had modified their views over the years -- as much of the U.S. population has. More interviews with women veterans would also have been good.
One of the strongest points made by "Ask Not" is that opinion within the military has changed dramatically since 1993, when "don't ask, don't tell" was adopted. Now, nearly three-quarters of military personnel say they would be comfortable with serving beside gays.
The numbers suggest that the rank and file -- consisting mostly of a younger generation -- is ready for change even if the generals and admirals, of an older, socially conservative generation, are not.
"Ask Not" is not the final word on the issue of gays in the military. There will be other works of journalism as the debate heats up in Washington and nationwide.
But it is a strong, serious effort at mixing a discussion of civil rights and a look at Americans forced to choose between love for their country and love for another human being.
'Independent Lens: Ask Not'
When: 10 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)