There’s a long journey to take in sprawling new Netflix documentary Father Soldier Son, a film that follows an American family for almost a decade through the unremarkable minutiae of daily life to the crushing tragedies that invade it. It’s about the military, patriotism and war, but it’s mostly about masculinity, and the dangers that come along with it, the overwhelming societal and familial pressures that force “men to be men” and how far into dangerous territory that can take us.
In Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis’s film, made with Netflix and the New York Times, patriarch Brian Eisch is taken all the way to Afghanistan to serve his country while his two sons mourn his absence. Their mother chose not to be part of their lives years prior, and so the two live with an uncle instead, briefly seeing their father every six months when he returns home on leave. It’s a difficult situation, with two boys under 12 accepting the importance of their father’s deployment while also pining for him. Brian acknowledges it too, but sees himself as too much of an important asset abroad to stay home. This decision is soon taken out of his hands when he is injured and forced to return to the US.
His leg wound ultimately keeps him off the battlefield permanently, a hollowing life change that he never quite gets over. We see him retreat to gaming, specifically army-based, firing off at home rather than overseas while imploring his sons to enlist as soon as possible to maintain a family tradition. Much of the film takes place quietly as Einhorn and Davis observe and assemble the small revealing moments of a family on edge. While Brian’s youngest is keen to live out his father’s dream, his eldest is less enthused, and in one of the most painful scenes, Brian and his new girlfriend actively discourage him from an idea of college, betting him that instead the army awaits. There’s a greater tragedy waiting for the family, one that I won’t reveal, but it arrives out of nowhere, as many great tragedies do, and forces the family to yet again reconfigure.
It’s an intimate portrait that at times borders on meandering but it remains free of judgment throughout, with Einhorn and Davis using their background as journalists to let the story happen without coercion or commentary. It’s devoid of voiceover or any sort of text-based narrative and even direct interviews are kept to a minimum with deftly picked snippets helping to flesh out the story.
In a revealing, and disheartening, moment, Brian’s eldest son, who eventually does enlist, explains that he has no idea why he would need to fight in Afghanistan, and has no idea what led to the war, but will do it anyway because that’s what he’s been told to do. There’s a conscious decision to avoid any overt form of political discussion despite proudly stated patriotism running throughout (a quick glance of Brian’s Facebook page shows him to be an impassioned Trump supporter) and while it’s mostly irrelevant to the day-to-day dramas of the family, at times it feels like an elephant in the room. Given the political upheaval over the decade we spend with the family, the total lack of even the smallest of indicators feels inorganic.
It’s Einhorn and Davis’s subtle exploration of the pressures put upon the men in the family, to fight, to avoid emoting, to enjoy a form of violence (whether it be on the battlefield, shooting birds near home or on a small screen) that proves most interesting, especially over such a long period of time. But despite the sprawl of the production, there’s still a bit too much empty space in Father Soldier Son and while the finale makes for a neat bookend, I questioned what it all amounted to, scraps of family life that will drift away with time.
Source: The Guardian