Father Soldier Son review: An intimate, gut wrenching portrait of an American family, manhood, and a nation at war
A New York Times documentary, Father Soldier Son spans 10 years in the lives of American soldier Barry Eisch and his sons Isaac and Joey.
I coincidentally happened to read Henry James' short story, Owen Wingrave, a few hours before watching the new Netflix documentary, Father Soldier Son. A New York Times production, Father Soldier Son charts the lives of an American soldier, Brian Eisch, and his sons Isaac and Joey.
Owen Wingrave is named for its protagonist, a brilliant and promising young man destined for a career in the Army until his ideology becomes firmly anti-war. The Wingraves have a long tradition of military service, an unbroken line going back several generations. Owen's decision to give up an Army career is met with disapproval; he is taken back to the family estate, where his aunt and grandfather hope to drum some sense into him. His coach is also invited for a stay at the estate, so he too can bring the right kind of pressure to bear on Owen. The coach develops a sympathetic attitude towards young Wingrave's situation, but is too late to prevent the tragedy that is to befall his protégé.
The theme of a strong filial tradition of military service runs through Father Soldier Son as well. Its tragedy, however, is more wide-ranging than the one Henry James imagined.
We begin in the year 2010, in Wautoma, Wisconsin. Amid the idyllic outdoors, two boys play on a swing, splash water from a garden hose, and fill up an inflatable pool. They're Isaac, 12-and-a-half, and Joey, a little over seven. Indoors, we find out a little more about the Eisch boys — their father Brian was deployed to Kunduz when President Barack Obama announced that the US would be sending an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Their father is due for a two-week vacation after six months on duty; the boys — who're living with their uncle during this time — make plans for Brian's arrival: A coloured banner, welcome signs, how they'll sprint to their father and hug him the minute he steps off the plane.
When Brian arrives, the boys are overcome. Pride (their dad is a soldier! Look how strong he is!) mingles with relief that he is home safe. The trio goes fishing (the boys' mother is not part of their lives; Brian raises them singly) and does normal family things until the two weeks are up. At the airport, Brian urges his sons to be strong, but they cry as they hug him goodbye and are taken away by their grandparents. It is nine years into the Afghanistan war.
Brian wonders at one point: "I've done everything Uncle Sam asked me to do. But what's everyone asking my boys to do?"
Back in Kunduz, Brian is severely wounded during a skirmish. He is flown home, and begins extensive medical treatment for his leg. He's left with a limp, scarred tissue, and unbearable pain.
Three years later, he agrees to an amputation. It is now 2014. Isaac notes that it's been a tough few years for the family because Brian's limited mobility has meant that they can't do all the things they used to as a family. Accompanied by his fiancée Maria to the hospital, Brian admits it's been difficult — to give up the Army, which was part of his life for 17 years; to cope with the pain; to come to terms with all the "used-to-coulds" (his way of the describing the pre-disability activities he's no longer capable of). After the surgery, we see Brian in bed, one sock-clad foot stretched out on the quilt, a discarded sock lying by his amputated limb.
Isaac and Joey, now 16 and 11 respectively, are by their father's side as he starts off on yet another road to recovery, complete with prosthetic fittings and tests of his physical abilities. Isaac says he's always been proud of his dad's work, but isn't sure now if his injuries were worth it. Joey talks about wanting to follow his father into the Army, "running around shooting guns" and being part of a new war. "There should be a cool war somewhere else [by then]," he concludes.
In one scene, Brian is shown trying to pull a snowblower up the ladder ramp of his truck without help. It's painful even to watch: Brian's body contorts as he goes down on his knee on his prosthesis, his other foot stuck on one of the rungs of the ramp. He rights himself, then hauls with all his strength until the recalcitrant snowblower finally jerks up the ramp, powered purely by Brian's grit.
In mid-2015, Brian and Maria are wed. Their vows are simple but heartfelt; Brian's speech later is even more so. He makes humorous digs at Isaac and Joey, reminding them how much he loves them. As the day grows darker, the camera shifts outside the hall. We watch through a window: a warm band of light and glass that frames the Eisch family and their guests — happy, carefree. It's a moment that seems to promise there will be better, joyous things to come.
Two months later, that promise is gone.
When Isaac turns 17, he enrols in the Army. This wasn't his dream; he wanted to go to college and study Criminal Justice, become a police officer. He wanted to stay close to his loved ones. But in his changed family circumstances, he feels compelled to carry on the Eisch legacy.
He admits that he doesn't understand much about the various wars the US has/is engaged in. He just loves his country and wants to serve. When he graduates from Basic Combat Training, Maria and Brian come to watch the ceremony: the newly minted soldiers march onto a field in clouds of fake smoke while the Otherwise song 'We are Soldiers' plays. "It's time to strap our boots on, this is a perfect day to die. Wipe the blood out of our eyes, in this life there's no surrender." The crowd cheers wildly; the vibe is like that of a rock concert.
Later, Isaac discloses that he's been struggling with depression. That he thinks about all the things Brian accomplished in his Army career and if he'll ever be able to match up to some of those exploits. He hopes that there will be another war, so he can fight in it and prove his worth.
Brian and Maria welcome their youngest son into the world. They name him Jaxon, and Brian says he'd want him to enlist someday too.
Father Son Soldier is an American story, but it isn't solely an American story. And while it is a story about an Army family, it isn't only about an Army family.
Through the lives of Brian, Isaac and Joey, we see the universal reflections of innocence lost; of what it means to come of age in a society that routinely sends its young men into war; of what it means to be a man; of being your father's son; of the legacies we nurture; of the love we bear for our families, and what we do to and for them.
Brian and Isaac both profess to be extremely patriotic, and that's not in doubt. Neither is the fact that military service is ingrained in their family heritage so much that it is a way of life. But what ultimately triggers their individual Army careers are prosaic concerns: Brian had to choose between a job at Walmart and enlisting. Isaac, while motivated by strong family feeling, also didn't have good enough grades to get into college like he wanted. The area of Wisconsin that they call home isn't, as Brian points out, "a rich community". There are no jobs; the nuclear plant — which represents the only major employment opportunity — is scheduling layoffs. In both men's cases, their fathers also have a big role in pushing them towards military careers.
Their Army careers also manifest, in some measure, how much their identities are shaped by their physical strength and ability. Whether it's excelling at wrestling for Isaac (and Joey) or raising his sons to be "tough little shits" for Brian, ideas about masculinity and what it entails deeply influence the lives of the Eisch men. Have these ideas prevented them from seeking the help they needed? Brian for his PTSD and grief; Isaac for the burden of anxiety he's been carrying around since far too early an age.
In the lives of the Eisch men, however, there is still room for tenderness. In the father's love for his sons, and the sons' for their father. In the ways in which they look out for each other. In the way directors Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn document this family's sorrows and joys, capturing the big moments and the small ones, the special and the everyday, the ordinary and extraordinary. It is a portrait of how a family changes over a decade, of the random tragedies that can change its course, and the hard-won miracles that keep it together. Every frame speaks, underscored by the delicate music of Nathan Halpern.
Father Soldier Son handles the Eischs with great sensitivity. In telling their story on camera, off-camera, it also tells ours. Of what we, as a society, demand from others — and accept without compunction. The moral should make us, at the very least, uncomfortable.
Father Soldier Son is currently streaming on Netflix.
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