Currently available on Netflix, the new documentary Father, Soldier, Son began a decade ago as a New York Times story about a U.S. Army battalion deployed to Afghanistan. Directors Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn then expanded the story into a long-form documentary study of soldier and single father Brian Eisch, his struggles with life after war and with a serious injury, and his relationship with his two sons, Isaac and Joey.
Our producer-at-large Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., watched the documentary and answers questions below from blog editor Kate O'Hare.
This film tackles more than one difficult subject – the military, PTSD, veterans, fathers and sons – do you feel that it did all of them justice, or one more than others?
With a documentary, filmmakers can’t always control themes that emerge from the footage. I think the subjects, then, were scattered and stretched thin for 90+-minute documentary. But for someone returning from military conflict, perhaps the scattered reality of life is the point.
Few documentaries today deal with the military and masculinity in an evenhanded manner. Do you feel the film had an agenda? And, if so or if not, why so or why not?
I felt the documentary let the subjects tell their own story. Let the subjects “hang themselves with their own noose” if negative, or “award themselves their own medals on their own podium.” if positive, so to speak.
I’m sure the filmmakers had their own personal opinion of war, but it was withheld in favor of telling the story. You can sense this from the “fly on the wall” style of the camerawork and the investment of following the family around for a decade.
What were your reactions to how Brian dealt with transitioning to civilian life and to coping with his injury?
I felt oddly detached as Brian re-entered civilian life. Again, maybe this was part of the style, the filmmakers weren’t playing for emotions. This mirrors a trend in how narrative directors approach war in recent films.
I loved Dunkirk and 1917, but some others felt they weren’t invested emotionally in the characters. I would counter argue this is the sign of a good war film: the individual personality is suppressed to accomplish a greater collective tactical goal.
This can be a hard film to watch – and it is rated R – what is its value for families, and how should parents approach sharing it?
If a family can handle vulgarity, I think they could handle the film as a whole. Also, any of the war scenes are almost exclusively treated as talking about them after the fact, so there’s not as much visual violence that a fictional film would have.
What particular value does this film have for military families?
It’s the first documentary that talks about military service as running in the family -- this family is fourth-generation. It makes you grateful for the warrior class, while also somewhat wary, as the subjects serve almost without questioning the specificity of each conflict they're involved in.
Many parents have questions today about how to raise their boys. What positive messages or cautionary tales does the film have on that subject?
The father attempts to be in his sons’ lives as much as possible, which is very commendable, for sure. But some of his advice reminded me of mine own father’s at his least helpful moments. As a former Marine, my dad said if someone hit me in school, hit back harder, so the bully would think twice about doing it again. It worked the one time that happened to me in junior high, but it’s not something I’ve carried with me into adult life.
What do you most hope fathers and sons can take away from this film?
A New York Times (producers) special section -- click here for that -- accompanied the release of the movie. It mentioned the son’s general discharge from the military, which the documentary couldn’t fit in before the release.
The son thought he would be out on the street as the father always said that, after 18 years, his sons would be on their own. But the father amended his former rigid approach, allowing his son to crash in his home until he decided the next professional step.
And I suppose, that self-critical approach of the father and his own parenting is what can provide the two of them and us, hope.
Click here for the official homepage of Father, Soldier, Son.
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.