Phil Donahue Strikes Back

gillette phildonahue1h Phil Donahue Strikes BackOn a recent Friday afternoon, Phil Donahue was sitting in a dimly lit production studio in midtown Manhattan when a reporter entered. Mr. Donahue looked up. He was wearing a checkered dress shirt over jeans and sneakers. Under a crop of shaggy white hair, his big blue eyes bulged mischievously.

He offered a mock warning to his fellow film producers in the studio. “Now watch what you say,” said Mr. Donahue. “We have a member of the mainstream media in our presence.”

These days, the godfather of daytime television is no longer a card-carrying member of the club. Ever since February of 2003, when MSNBC cancelled his nightly talk show, Mr. Donahue has been wandering through the outskirts of the American media. Recently, he has settled into an unlikely role: a TV icon turned freelancing filmmaker.

“What can I get you to drink,” said Mr. Donahue. “A shot and a beer?”

Mr. Donahue was in from Connecticut for the afternoon to put the final touches on his first feature-length documentary, Body of War. Mr. Donahue recently described the movie as a “non-nuanced, anti–Iraq War documentary,” about a “heartland kid who suddenly went from a social life of single bars and courtship to a daily routine of catheters, puke pans and erectile dysfunction.”

Little Miss Sunshine, we are not,” said Mr. Donahue.

So far, Mr. Donahue doesn’t have a distributor for the film, which he has financed with his own money. He hopes to begin showing Body of War at film festivals by the end of the summer. The market for Iraq documentaries, said Mr. Donahue, was growing more crowded by the day, but he felt confident that his would stand out. “There are no tanks in this movie,” said Mr. Donahue. “No Humvees. Nothing that goes BOOM.”

“This is Baby Jessica in the well in Texas,” said Mr. Donahue.

Body of War focuses narrowly on the physical and political struggles of Tomas Young, an injured veteran adjusting to life in a wheelchair. Mr. Young, a freckle-faced twentysomething native of Kansas City, Mo., joined the Army a few days after Sept. 11. He had expected to fight in Afghanistan. Instead, he went to Iraq. On his fifth day in combat, he was patrolling Sadr City when a shot ripped through him.

Mr. Donahue reached out to demonstrate. “The bullet entered here,” said Mr. Donahue, tapping a reporter near the left clavicle. “It exited, here, in the T4 vertebrae of the spine.”

“Now he’s paralyzed from the nipples down.”

Mr. Donahue said his inspiration for the film was a Pulitzer Prize–winning photograph of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a cloud of napalm. “See the pain,” said Mr. Donahue. “Don’t sanitize this war.”

The film features two original songs, written and performed by Eddie Vedder, the front man of Pearl Jam. Mr. Donahue explained that he and Mr. Vedder first met in 2000, when they were both campaigning for Ralph Nader. Their paths crossed again in the spring of 2007, in Scottsdale, Ariz., at a Chicago Cubs fantasy camp.