In 2009, President Barack Obama deployed 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in what would later be dubbed “the longest war.” The men who sacrificed their lives provide the title for the documentary, “Father, Soldier, Son,” which questions whether leaving one’s family for months or years (or forever) is worth it?
Directors Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn draw from one man’s journey—and, more importantly, interviews with his family—to explain the toll war can take on a military household. Brian Eisch, 36, is a platoon sergeant serving a year in Afghanistan. He’s also a single father with two sons who adore, treasure, and admire him. Moments before their dad arrives at an airport on leave, the jittery Joey, 7, and the nervous Issac, 12, take command of a terminal. “Hold that sign up!” Joey barks at a family member. “Look happy, look happy!” yells Isaac. But those tough facades melt into a puddle of tears when they jump into dad’s outstretched arms. It’s a bear hug you will never forget, and one of the most moving scenes in the entire film.
Produced by The New York Times and filmed by its directors, “Father, Soldier, Son” follows Brian over the course of ten years. Einhorn first met Brian while working on a multimedia project, “A Year at War,” and thought the charismatic soldier was worthy of his own documentary. He was right. Brian is indeed a charismatic subject, as seen fishing and wrestling with his two sons while on leave. But Einhorn couldn’t have predicted what comes next. What at first seems like a shout-out to the ambitious (and very funny) Brian soon becomes a cathartic exploration of identity, family, and sacrifice.
When Brian returns home a second time, he has been badly wounded, with a shattered leg and battered ego. He struggles with being “not mission capable,” and the boys don’t understand how “super-hero dad” lost his leg. “It’s hard thinking he actually got shot from a real bullet, from a real gun,” says Joey. The access to Brian’s family and the vérité approach used by the filmmakers creates the feeling that we are growing up with Joey, Isaac, and Brian. Over a decade, we watch the boys age and the years pass.
The film makes a point to explore the big moments in life, as well as the little ones. Brian’s girlfriend, Maria, enters the picture, along with her son, Jordan. She helps Brian get back on his feet, taking him on walks in small yet beautiful moments. Brian’s depression isn’t handled as well by the boys, who set on different courses. Joey is all about that army life. Isaac makes plans for college and cries when Brian says he won’t make it. While there’s something powerful about seeing real tears and genuine emotion on screen, it’s distressing watching moments when a family member passes or when Brian makes Joey cry in a wrestling match. The camera doesn’t flinch during these scenes; it lingers on shots of eyes watering up or strangers rudely staring at Brian’s missing leg.
“Was it worth it?” one stranger asks. Brian looks down at his amputated leg, gives himself a second to think, and replies, “Hell yeah, it was worth it.” You can imagine the sorrow that flashed before his eyes in that single second, all the things he lost over his ten-year journey. But you can also imagine all the good things—his boys at the airport and Maria’s unwavering support every step of the way. “Father, Soldier, Son” doesn’t show bias toward the highs or the lows. Rather, it depicts Brian’s life as a mixture of love and loss, pain and recovery, birth, death, and rebirth. What emerges is an unforgettable portrait of a life in flux. [B+]
“Father, Soldier, Son” is available to stream now on Netflix.