Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 13th, 2020
Father Soldier Son (Leslye Davis/Catrin Einhorn, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Shot over the course of 9 years, the new documentary Father Soldier Son is a marvel of embedded filmmaking, directors Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, both journalists at The New York Times, returning time and again to spend time with one particular family that undergoes a series of traumas and recoveries. When we first meet Brian Eisch, the paterfamilias, in 2010, he is a longtime army soldier – a noncommissioned officer (a platoon sergeant) – serving in Afghanistan for months at a time while his two boys, Isaac (12½) and Joey (7½), stay with relatives. Their mother is not around, and Brian, even if on tour, has full custody. Both boys clearly adore their dad, who does his best, when home, to be active and present in their lives. He worries that war will change him, and not for the better. Little does he realize what lies ahead.
Initially, we cut back and forth between Wautama, in Wisconsin, and Kunduz, in Afghanistan. But then Brian is shot and brought home for medical treatment. What ensues is a harrowing series of procedures to save his leg, the result never foreordained. Since this is real life, there may be a happy outcome or there may not. One thing is certain, however, which is that Brian, no matter what, will try as hard as he is able to do right by his kids.
They are a thoughtful duo; Isaac, especially. All grown up before his time, he wants nothing more than to please his father. We see him in school, on the wrestling team, as was Brian, and we see him at home, minding both Joey and Brian. Fortunately, the burden of care is not all on his very young shoulders, as some time between 2010 and 2014, Brian meets Maria, and they form a new household in Lacona, New York. Always, the camera is there, observing the cost of service and sacrifice. Not everyone is on their best behavior at all times, but there’s no overt judgement from the objective lens, except an oblique criticism, from afar, of a system that sends young men into battle.
It’s a gentle reproach, for the directors otherwise show great respect for their subjects’ commitment to the military life, even at the most tragic moments of the narrative (not all of which have to do with that military). During the almost-decade that we come to know them, we become ever more conscious of their specific humanity and the universal story it tells. At times the narrative may seem too oblique, scenes left out in the editing that might provide more context, but the overall impact of the film is never less than overwhelming.
[Father Soldier Son drops on Netflix on Friday, July 17, 2020.]