Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 (2013) Review

HBO knows how to pick their documentaries, and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is a great selection. It’s quick and to the point, and truly understands how to pace its subject matter. More importantly, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, drawing out a topic that doesn’t require more time. Crisis is a wonderful presentation of a serious problem and the people who help contain it.

According to the documentary, U.S. armed forces veterans are committing suicide at a rate of roughly one death an hour. For those that seek help, many call the Veteran’s Crisis Hotline to speak with a crisis responder in the only call center in the country that specifically helps veterans. Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 shares with viewers the day to day occurrences that this call center experiences.

Crisis moves quickly, mirroring the urgency of the stories highlighted in the film. After some brief B-roll of thematic visuals, like American flags and telephone poles coupled with title cards that deliver the grim reality of suicidal veterans, the documentary thrusts viewers into their first crisis call. From that point, the film never lets up. Every responder’s story is engaging, and every call is its own battle. And when each call wraps up, the documentary never lingers, opting instead to move onto the next crisis. At times audiences may want more resolution when a call ends abruptly, but that is the nature of this situation: these responders don’t have the luxury of certainty, and there are always more calls coming in.

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is a tremendous achievement in that it manages to be thrilling even though every phone call is one-sided; audiences never hear what the caller says. It’s this partial information that keeps viewers glued to the documentary, forcing them to piece together the conversation through the responder’s replies and his or her body language. So when a responder tenses up or urgency sharpens their inflections, it’s difficult not to think the worst. Happily, the documentary isn’t just a series of conversations; the responders work with a team on each call. So while they’re speaking with a caller, they’re also instant messaging another team member, who might be in contact with local law enforcement or emergency medical crews. It’s a dynamic experience.

The responders are, of course, the stars of the documentary, but none of them ever feel like their mugging for the camera. In fact, it’s their plainness that makes them so accessible. They’re just ordinary people, handling extraordinary situations one call at a time. Impressively, none of them every break down, nor do they exhibit occupational numbness to their jobs. They’re simply professional.

Finally, in this era of constant wars, it would have been easy to use this documentary as a soapbox for an anti-war screed. And while this film certainly won’t be used in any recruitment offices, Crisis takes pains to be apolitical throughout. Even when one responder describes the gruesomeness of some of these veterans’ experiences, he blames their circumstances on the nature of war rather than the government that sent these soldiers into war. Overall, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 is a nice tribute and wonderful exposure for the men and women who have to endure a tough situation everyday…on both sides of the phone.