One of America’s greatest writers, Tim O’Brien was well over a decade past his last published book when filmmaker Aaron Matthews started following him around, filming a documentary.
O’Brien was into his ’70s, and stopped writing basically when his sons were born in the early 2000s. But as the Vietnam War vet and lifelong smoker started pondering his mortality and “did the math,” he knew there was at least one more book he needed to write, one to the sons he probably won’t see into adulthood.
“The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” captures a lion of American letters in winter. The American Book Award-winning author of “The Things They Carried,” “If I Die in a Combat Zone” and my pick as the best Vietnam War novel never to be made into a movie, “Going After Cacciato,” the de facto poet laureate of that war, gives speeches and lectures, gets interviewed — a lot — and watches his kids play basketball.
And in the middle of the night, he tries to write. The book became “Dad’s Maybe Book,” and “War and Peace” shows us the heavy lifting it takes to write what his wife Meredith calls “his last book. He’s going to say everything that he wants to say in it.”
But he relates to an audience at one of his readings, “With every syllable I try to talk myself out of writing the next syllable.” When you’ve become “a war novelist,” when you’re mining your own experiences “in country” (1969-70), writing is painful.
Matthews, sometimes chatting from behind the camera, once even pitching in as the exasperated writer loses his new credit card in a gas pump, keeps this informal. He is filmmaker as “company” to O’Brien, a sounding board the novelist can pontificate to, saltily grouse with and — perhaps performatively — grind out the work for. That gives “War and Peace” a casual intimacy that many “fly on the wall” documentaries lack.
We can practically see the camera crew adding pressure to a writer with demons he still wrestles with, a war he never really got over and a deadline that is his own mortality.
Writer’s block sends O’Brien onto the kitchen floor, hand-cleaning the grout with paper towels, a wee hours of the morning pursuit.
O’Brien frets over that “war writer” label, “the entire content of my obituary.” His speeches see him as an anti war “Evangelist,” urging listeners to consider “the rectitude” of war.
And he sleeps in a “trench” he makes on a sofa or a bed, piled up pillows and blankets as if he’s hunkering down in a combat zone. He guiltily ponders the times young men have come up to him after hearing him read, telling them he’s convinced them to enlist.
Some of the best scenes in “War and Peace” have him sitting down with other vets, contradicting their politics, but finding common ground simply because he’s shared their experience and even the most stridently conservative among them respect that.
And he writes, hoping that some day his boys will “find my ghost in these pages…My kids, when I’m dead, will hear their father’s voice.” Damn, he’s quotable.
Those kids? They aren’t curious or gutsy enough to ask him about that war, a war none of their classmates’ parents can relate to. They acknowledge Dad’s bad days and rough nights, the trauma that they can see lingering in his moods.
He describes a firefight in a reading, “the bee-sting sensation in my left hand, the zipping sounds of eternity passing by,” he recalls a day and an event few people can fathom — “The Man I Killed.”
And as he types away, constantly interrupted, taking too little care of his health, exasperated by a dying Lexus or his sons’ addiction to “screens,” we marvel at the compulsion of the artist to make art, to leave a legacy not just to all of us, but to those living under his roof.
This struggle through O’Brien’s “War and Peace” make the viewer appreciate that it’s not just his time in combat that deserves our gratitude. As he pours a little more of himself onto every hard-won page, all I could think to say is “Thank you for your service.”
MPA Rating: unrated, profanity, smoking
Cast: Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Ben Fountain, Tad O’Brien, Timmy O’Brien and Dan Rather
Credits: Directed by Aaron Matthews. A Gravitas Ventures release.
Running time: 1:23