A little more than halfway through “Father Soldier Son,” a documentary that follows a military family over the course of a tumultuous decade, former serviceman Brian Eisch takes his sons out for a family night at the movies. And given that this is taking place in the mid 2010s, it’s no surprise that the movie in question in “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s rousing but problematic portrait of the late U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.
That is clearly Eisch’s kind of movie – and in an odd way, it’s not hard to find similarities between “American Sniper” and “Father Soldier Son,” both of them about gung-ho soldiers not prone to introspection and not entirely cognizant of the toll their service takes on those around them.
But Eastwood’s film, of course, was a high-octane war drama that piled on the action; “Father Soldier Son,” a New York Times film from reporters and first-time directors Caitrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis, is a quiet documentary that drops in on Eisch and his family on and off from 2010 to the present day. It’s more about conversations around the dinner table than engagements on the battlefield.
Einhorn and Davis are sympathetic to Eisch, but the object isn’t to get us to root for him the way many moviegoers rooted for Kyle; the filmmakers just want us to understand where he comes from, where his family is going and what that says about the state of American manhood, particularly in the heartland.
What is says is sobering and at times disturbing, which gives the film a quiet power even if it’s at times frustrating.
The film, which premieres on Netflix on July 17, begins shortly after then-President Barack Obama increased the American military presence in Afghanistan, with Eisch coming back home to Wisconsin for a two-week leave before returning to Afghanistan for another six-month deployment. His sons, Isaac and Joey, are 12 and 7, respectively, and they’re staying with an uncle because their mother lost custody after her divorce from Eisch.
A mixture of verité footage with occasional interviews, the film is beautifully shot as it shifts from Eisch at war to Isaac and Joey at home. But before long, Eisch is badly wounded and sent back in the U.S. to recover from leg injuries at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington.
A veteran of 17 years in the Army, Eisch is determined not to lose his leg and to return to active duty, but the latter is clearly impossible and the former eventually proves to be so as well. For a man whose identity is inexplicably bound to his military service, the loss is almost catastrophic.
“I absolutely wish I was still in the Army,” says Eisch, who stops being the fun parent he always wanted to be and buries himself playing combat video games. “I had some power. I had some authority. I had some identity. And now, who am I?”
Who he is, clearly, is a guy who used to be a soldier. His t-shirts and caps mostly have a military theme, and the walls of his home are bedecked with military images. (We never hear him talk about politics, but you have to wonder if there isn’t a MAGA cap in his closet somewhere.)
In a way, the military obsession seems preordained: Eisch explains at one point that his father really wanted a son in the military and he was the youngest, so he joined “by default.” But he didn’t resist it, he embraced it – and it’s obvious that he wants at least one of his sons to follow in his footsteps, even if he’s now taking those steps on one leg and a prosthetic.
‘I’m not sure his injuries for the rest of his life are worth it all,” says Isaac, the more thoughtful and sensitive of the two boys. Isaac’s goal is to go to college and study criminal justice – but in some particularly disturbing sequences, his father mocks Isaac’s college ambitions both to his face and to the cameras, and bets him that he’ll go straight into the Army.
“Father Soldier Son” is about honor and service and masculinity and notions of patriotism, but it’s also about living a life where you can’t really make your own choices – where you go into the Army because your father wants you to and then your son does the same thing, and where you look forward to fighting in a war even though you admit you have no idea why the war is even happening.
The film doesn’t make a point of exploring those issues, preferring to lay back and simply follow the Eisch family through devastating tragedy and occasional joys, including a marriage and a birth. That approach allows viewers to see the Eisches through their own biases and doesn’t limit the audience to those on the left or the right — but it also presents Brian and his family without judgment but also without a lot of context at times.
Maybe we’d understand them better if we knew more about the divorce that caused the boys’ mother to complete sever ties with them; maybe we’d have a keener grasp of Brian if we knew more about his own father, who seems to have left his son no recourse but to enlist. Then again, Brian and his sons would likely be unable and unwilling to explain themselves, so it might be too much to expect the filmmakers to do it.
You can appreciate the calm, measured approach and the care with which “Father Soldier Son” is composed and assembled, but it’s hard to escape the damage that has been done to the people at the heart of the film, and the damage that they’ve done to themselves. If this is a portrait of American manhood or American patriotism, it’s a troubling one.