Documentary Review: “Father Soldier Son” portrays a military family’s struggles

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For a film as understated as it is, “Father Soldier Son” tackles a lot of issues and does a lot of explaining.

The touching, intimate documentary is about tradition, legacy, masculinity and most importantly, I think, choices.

That “camo mania” that you see in huge swaths of Middle America and rural counties in these fractiously-United States? It’s not all about “Duck Dynasty,” and it’s not necessarily even about patriotism, no matter what folks say.

As Brian Eisch, the Wisconsinite Army sergeant we meet in this New York Times-produced film points out, “There aren’t many jobs” in rural America. “Even the nuclear power plant’s closing” he says at one point during this decade-long chronicle of his and his family’s lives.

In big chunks of the United States, filmmakers Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn show us,  the military is “a way out,” or at least the best employment option after school ends. Signing up has become a rural white American family tradition, one wrapped in the flag, anchored in “tradition” but flowering in a lack of opportunity.

Brian’s dad “wanted at least one of” his sons in the military. And after he gets out, he lets his kids know — directly and indirectly — he sees that as their best option, too.

Their ruggedly handsome Dad is still serving when Joey, his seven year-old, tells the filmmakers “He said if he’s not doing this right now that we’ll have bullets flying over our heads at night.”

Five years later, Joey’s all-in. “I wanna run around, shooting guns, doing fun stuff.”

An endless Afghan war and other deployments overseas keep that opportunity alive.

Those are the major themes of “Father Soldier Son.” We see snippets of Brian’s combat duty, and what his deployments do to his youngest, Joey, and Isaac, five years older. Growing up in the care of a uncle because their mother checked out of the family when she ended the marriage, the strains are visible on both kids.

And after Brian’s service ends — cut short by serious wounds that cost him a leg — his sons manifest the stresses the family, their childhood and their very identity are under.

Perhaps only two female filmmakers would have thought to take the film in this direction. But when you see one-legged Brian, unable to truly coach his youngest in the family sport — wrestling — just shouting encouragement from off the mat at a weeping kid who doesn’t have the aggression in him, you get it.

“My Dad was a wrestler. Now I am.”

When you note all the many shots of the other son biting his nails, struggling between a desire NOT to be in the military and yet without the focus or grades to realize other options, it can be heartbreaking.

“It’s a lot easier being a platoon sergeant than it is raising two boys,” Brian says, still in uniform. But without that military career, with the life limitations now facing him, sucking away his motivation, we see him distracted, depressed and “pissed off,” as Maria, the new woman in his life notes.

Brian doesn’t see what the camera sees. “I got some mentally strong boys,” he boasts, taking them out hunting and fishing. But we can see the trials to come. And we know that “Thank you for your service” isn’t going to make this world right.

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“Father Soldier Son” can be compared to the controversial Vietnam era doc “Hearts and Minds,” as well as the sober WWII’s aftermath “The Best Years of Our Lives,”in its focus, its intimacy and its politics.

It won’t be shocking to the Middle America “American Sniper” fanbase that the New York Times (which produced it) and these two women behind the camera suggest “toxic masculinity” as part of what’s going on here, that they let the question “Was it worth it?” hang in the air and over their film.

Don’t let that frighten you off. Yes, this family and these people are patriots, serving their country and taking satisfaction in that. Narrowing the focus to just these three, with Maria, but not showing us much of her children from a previous marriage or the community that they all live in doesn’t cheat us because we know that world, in real and political terms — conservative, traditional, self-reliant.

What “Father Soldier Son” suggests is maybe the coasts surrounding “flyover country” should take a hard look at the limited lives facing those left behind in dying small towns. And maybe the folks in those small towns should take a hard look at “traditions” that aren’t getting them much more than “Thank you for your service” in the bargain.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: R, for language (profanity)

Cast: Brian Eisch, Joey Eisch, Maria Eisch, Isaac Eisch

Credits: Directed by Leslye Davis, Catrin Einhorn. A Neflix release of a New York Times film.

Running time: 1:39

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