Directors: Catrin Einhorn, Leslye Davis
A famous quote, often attributed to François Truffaut, holds that there is no such thing as a true anti-war film because cinema cannot help but make the depiction of combat look glorious. It’s a sound statement, even if the validity is still up for debate (Truffaut didn’t live to see Klimov’s Come and See), and there’s an addendum that could be made at least where mainstream American movies are concerned: in Hollywood, there are no anti-army films. While anti-militarism was more pronounced in American cinema back in the days of Vietnam, Stanley Kubrick, and Oliver Stone, it has steadily declined with the emergence of the military-entertainment complex and post-9/11 jingoism. While you do still get films that attempt to critically engage with the harmful effects of modern warfare and American foreign policy, there’s more hesitancy where depictions of the US military organisation and its troops are concerned (and that’s without considering movies that were made in direct collaboration with the US army like Transformers and some MCU titles, which is a whole other discussion). In a country that equates militarism with national security, the army has worked hard to advertise itself to the public as a noble institution that upholds liberty and democracy around the world. It is such a pervasive idea today that few feel compelled to challenge it, even in a documentary that looks specifically into the harrowing fallout of one man’s military service.
The film is about Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch and chronicles a decade of his life, starting in 2010 with his service in Afghanistan and ending in 2020. In the time between, Brian is severely wounded and returns home to his sons Isaac and Joey. When we first meet him, Brian is a happy-go-lucky guy; he loves being a soldier, he loves spending time with his kids, and he loves fishing, camping, and hunting. When a gunshot to the leg puts him out of action for good, Brian’s response is to stay positive and tough it out while his leg heals. The film then cuts to three years later where we meet a different man. He’s more irritable and dejected than before. He’s put on weight and lost a lot of his independence. He lives in constant pain and worries that his reliance on others has turned him into a burden (a “used-to-could” as he puts it). At this point, he has finally agreed that the only forward is to have his leg amputated. As Brian adapts to his new circumstances, life moves on. His sons grow up, he gets married, he learns to use a prosthetic leg, and all along the way comes tragedy and joy and everything else life has to throw at him.
The film, as directed by Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis (both of them journalists for The New York Times), is resolutely passive in its approach. It is a fly-on-the-wall documentary where we are invited to observe and follow this military family over the course of a decade without ever stopping to consider the roles that the filmmakers play. They never draw any attention to their presence in the Eischs’ lives nor do we ever hear their voices. They take no stances, pass no judgements, and push no agendas. In a story that has more going on in it than the individual, personal struggles of a single family dealing with hardship, what we’re supposed to understand as objectivity and neutrality comes across as thematically shallow apoliticism. Father Soldier Son is a modern thesis on intergenerational patterns of masculine behaviour and expectations, it is an exposé on the direct and indirect costs of the war in Afghanistan for its troops, and it is an account of the kinds of social pressures, economic barriers, and dearth of realistic alternatives that lead so many young people to join the army. In focusing so fixedly on the symptoms of these protruding issues without attempting to examine their roots, the film betrays an unwillingness on its part to actually engage with the story it has set out to tell.
My issues with this film, I’d like to stress, are not indicatory of a lack of empathy for Brian and his family, whose struggles and tribulations are conveyed clearly and effectively. As is often the case in documentaries, the story that unfolds is so astonishing and tragic that it could only have happened in real life to real people; if you were to present this same story in the form of a dramatic screenplay, it would be dismissed as too fantastic. From the very first moment when you see Sgt. Eisch step off a plane after six months in a warzone and embrace his two boys, as moving a scene as any that can possibly be committed to film, all you want is for them get through whatever happens over the next 90 minutes intact. The movie inspires tremendous sympathy for Brian as he faces the many challenges of adapting to life without his leg, openly addresses the anxiety of losing part of himself and becoming the kind of person he hoped to never become, and suffers a level of pain and heartbreak that no human being should have to experience. The tragedy of his story is compounded even further by a character with an unfortunately narrow idea of how to hold himself and live his life, socially and emotionally, as a man.
As we see Brian’s sons get older, we watch as he imparts onto them the same toxic ideals of masculinity that have guided him through his own life. When the then twelve-year-old Joey takes up wrestling to be more like his dad and big brother, it’s clear that he’s just too sweet and gentle a boy to be an effective fighter. After a series of defeats, Brian presses onto his tearful son that the solution is to toughen up and get angrier. Later we see Joey talking innocently about his desire to join the army as soon as he’s old enough so he can shoot the bad guys that hurt his father. Isaac has a different future in mind; he wants to be the first in his family to go to college, only Brian is so confident it won’t happen that he bets him $400 on it. He wants Isaac to join the army like he did and, when he’s eventually proven to be correct about his son, that’s exactly what happens. Brian is so committed to the masculine virtues of toughness, forcefulness and emotional hardness that his loyalty to the institution that cost him his leg never wavers. These are all sides of Brian that the filmmakers saw fit to include in their final cut, but they are left uninterrogated.
I’m not sure if it comes down to a lack of curiosity or if Einhorn and Davis were deliberate in their desire not to step on anybody’s toes, but their presentation of Brian’s experience feels deficient. There’s no attempt to address the army’s responsibility for Brian’s injury and little is made of the larger context of the war and the politics behind it. Brian remarks in once scene that the square he used to patrol was eventually taken over by the enemy and briefly wonders whether what he did in Afghanistan was worth it, but the film leaves that question unexplored. Towards the end when Isaac enlists and enters basic training, the feeling of dreadful, cyclical inevitability it inspires goes unacknowledged. The film is so determined not to take a stance that it refuses to express so much as ambivalence on any themes that might be deemed provocative or unpatriotic. That the film did such a good job of conveying this family’s misfortunes and inspiring such empathy makes me feel all the more disappointed that they refused to pronounce their story with the greater significance it deserved. Father Soldier Son is a sanitised tragedy; one where a soldier’s grievous injury and the harrowing effect it has on his family life are presented on Netflix with such euphemistic terms as ‘sacrifice’ and ‘redemption’, lest anybody think that there are deeper, more pressing questions to be raised by such a story.