Father Soldier Son

 

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A project both helped and hindered by unforeseen events.

 
Father Soldier Son

  

Here we have a film which both for better and for worse has been shaped by what happened during the making of it. As originally conceived by Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, this documentary was to have been about an American battalion serving in Afghanistan. Brian Eisch a platoon sergeant was to feature in it and the film was to depict a year out there but with references to his family back home. At this time - 2010 - Brian had two young sons, Isaac who was twelve and Joey who was seven and, following a divorce, he had taken on the responsibility of looking after them. In these early scenes in Wisconsin the boys express to camera their already conflicting feelings: pride in a father who can be thought of as doing his duty for his country and fear that he might be killed in which case the presence of an uncle and grandparents to help out would hardly compensate.

 

It was not long before fate would intervene and in doing so would transform the nature of the film being made. During a bid to help a civilian while on duty, Brian Eisch was shot and suffered a serious wound to his lower left leg. Brought home to America to undergo surgery, it would soon become clear that amputation was necessary and the only upside at this time lay in the fact that on moving with the boys to Lacona, New York Brian met the woman, Maria, who would become his second wife and a devoted stepmother to Isaac and Joey. By now Father Soldier Son had become a long term project, one that would take almost ten years to complete, and the focus had shifted. What it had become was not an antiwar statement as such but a film about the cost of war to individuals, in this instance to Brian, Maria and the children.

 

In its completed form Father Soldier Son is decidedly a film in two parts and in the first half Davis and Einhorn, both women journalists making their debut feature, followed through on what they had been gifted. Far more individual than the movie they had initially set out to make, they found that they were handling compelling material offering what is close to being a fresh slant on the subject of war. The ongoing impact of wartime injuries has occasionally been tackled in film dramas: paraplegics were central to Fred Zinnemann's the Men (1950) and to Hal Ashby's Coming Home (1978) and, as part of a broader view of former servicemen adjusting to peacetime life, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) was notable for the inclusion in the cast of a real-life amputee, Harold Russell.  But not even these films (nor indeed Clint Eastwood's somewhat different American Sniper of 2014 which features at one point in Father Soldier Son) dealt in detail with the pressures that military life can have on the next generation. Brian Eisch's sufferings are clear enough, the anguish of his slow progress and the tensions that resulted in the home shown with great realism, but there is just as much emphasis on how the lives of Isaac and Joey were altered. Brian was undoubtedly a caring parent but his state would at times prevent him from functioning as a good father and we recognise that being a third generation military man meant that the incapacity caused by his injury made him lose his sense of self-esteem. As though to compensate for what he could no longer do himself, he would be tough in the demands he made on his children in an attempt to build them up in his own former likeness. In particular, he would pressurise them in the hope that at least one of them would want to join the military.

 

Davis and Einhorn are newcomers who despite their general competence don't show any special flair as directors, but that is not needed and they don't get in the way of telling a powerful story that has a real impact on the viewer. Their film seems honest and if, for all his bravery, Brian Eisch emerges from it as a fallible human being it is to his credit that he allowed it to take this form with the material never feeling censored. If, even so, there is a sense of something inappropriate and intrusive here that relates to the filming of the children since encouraging them to open up on camera must on account of their age surely be seen as something imposed on them by their father's approval of the project. But that is a relatively minor point and the first half of Father Soldier Son stands as an impressive revelation of what war did to one family.

 

The second half of this documentary is a different matter, however. Once again fate would intervene to change the course of the work. This was in 2015 when tragedy would strike the family. However, the fact that the event in question had nothing whatever to do with Brian's war injuries means that for a time the original and main focus of the film is lost. Even more importantly in terms of how well this film works, this development will eventually lead to issues about the value or otherwise of leading a life in the military and, while this does again render Brian's history highly relevant, it calls for a different approach from that taken by the filmmakers up to this point.

 

The material that dominates the final scenes in this film is such that, according to one's individual outlook, the outcome concerning the future of one member of the family will either seem positive or negative, representing either a patriotic approval of the American military regardless of any suffering that may result or a misguided step which could be seen as ending the film on another tragic note. It is, perhaps, understandable that, having spent years filming the Eisch family, the filmmakers felt unable to take sides as to how this situation should be viewed and consequently we have scenes that veer uneasily and without comment between these two opposing viewpoints. What I am really saying is that this time around what fate brought about ultimately called for a different kind of film altogether. Indeed, one sees these later stages as ideal material for a drama with actors written so as to take a specific stance, one which, whether it be positive or negative, would provide an attitude with which the audience could concur or not. Father Soldier Son withers in its second half by being unable to follow this course, but what it achieves prior to that makes it well worth your attention.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Brian Eisch, Isaac Eisch, Joey Eisch, Maria Eisch.

 

Dir Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, Pro Leslye Davis, Catrin Einhorn, Nancy Donaldson Gauss and Kathleen Lingo,  Ph Leslye Davis, Marcus Yam and others, Ed Amy Foote, Music Nathan Halpern.

 

Netflix/New York Times-Netflix.
99 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 17 July 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.