WASHINGTON — Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering knew from the start that they weren't just making a movie.
“The Invisible War,” their searing, Academy Award-nominated documentary about sexual assault in the military, was intended to galvanize change — in military culture, policy and, ultimately, the legal system.
So from the beginning the pair — Dick as director, Ziering as producer — conceived a “grass tops” strategy for having the film seen by those who could implement that change: members of Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, administration officials.
But they never imagined that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's confirmation hearing would feature questions about “The Invisible War.” Or, for a time at least, that they would find themselves not so much filmmakers as lobbyists — although they wince, simultaneously, at the term when I use it in an interview.
Dick and Ziering have been shuttling from Los Angeles to Washington — most recently for Tuesday's daylong hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, during which “The Invisible War” played a starring role.
Indeed, since its release, the debate has shifted from whether the military has a sexual assault problem — the Joint Chiefs, arrayed before the Armed Services Committee, penitently agreed — to whether, as Dick and Ziering argue, decisions about such cases should be left to prosecutors and removed from the full discretion of commanders.
That notion is anathema to the military, which insists that relieving commanders of such authority would erode good order and discipline. But how? And where is the good order and discipline in an estimated 26,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact last year?
Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the panel's chairman, cited the film in his opening statement. Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly asked about retired Coast Guard Seaman Kori Cioca's account of being raped and later warned she would be court-martialed for lying if she reported it.
“I watched that and it broke my heart,” Adm. Robert Papp, the Coast Guard commandant, replied. “We've made that mandatory viewing for our senior leaders.”
“The Invisible War” has become an unofficial military training video — far more effective than the Pentagon-created material lampooned in the film. “One of the most effective training methods that we use,” Army Col. Donna Martin testified.
Less comforting was Martin's description of how her criminal investigators responded after watching the movie. “It was amazing to me how many of my special agents still question the victim's response,” she said. “What was very important … was to talk about the lack of trust that the victims had for the chain of command (and) how they felt re-victimized.”
The obvious analogue to the impact of “The Invisible War” is Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel “The Jungle,” which exposed exploitation of workers and unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry. The ensuing public outrage led to the new food and meat safety laws.
As with “The Jungle,” the film proves the emotional power of narrative. The data on sexual assaults in the military are upsetting; the video of victims telling their stories is gut-wrenching.
“I don't think anyone leaves the theater unchanged,” Ziering said.
And as with “The Jungle,” published at the height of the Progressive Era, the film arrived with optimal timing — after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were drawing to an end, and, more important, when a critical mass of women in Congress were present to seize on the issue.
No, sexual assault in the military is not only a women's issue; by the raw numbers, more men are victims than women. But it is no coincidence that lawmakers driving this issue, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., have been predominantly women.
With the women pushing, the men are, increasingly, getting it. The legislative moment is ripe.
“Every time we come home from Washington, we think that's the last trip,” Ziering said. But it isn't. They're flying back this week for more, well, lobbying.
WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP