Netflix’s Moving Tribute to America’s Wounded Warriors
The new documentary “Father Soldier Son” captures the toll—both physical and psychological—of the Afghanistan War on one military family plagued by tragedy.
A portrait of the way in which our lives are shaped not only by our parents and the examples they set—and values they instill—but by the traumatic events we’re forced to endure, Father Soldier Son is a quietly incisive and moving Netflix documentary about a military family beset by hardship. Prepare to cry more than once before its opening credits roll, and then make sure to have tissues at the ready for the rest of its intimate, unaffected runtime.
Directed and produced by Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis, Father Soldier Son (now streaming) spends ten years with the Eisch clan, comprised of Army platoon sergeant Brian and the two young sons, Isaac and Joey, he leaves behind in 2010 with uncles and grandparents, not for the first time, to continue waging war in Afghanistan. In Wautoma, Wisconsin, 12-year-old Isaac can barely contain his excitement—or waterworks—when greeting his dad at the airport as he arrives home for an extended vacation. Isaac later confesses that, regardless of his staunch support of the Army, he constantly worries about his dad’s well-being, praying “please bring him back safe.” At only seven-and-a-half, Joey is plagued by similar concerns, as well as persistent longing, since Brian is their sole custodian (their mother abandoned them after the divorce). Still, Joey has pure childlike faith in the fact that “My dad is in Afghanistan, trying to make this country how it is.”
The emotional toll that military service takes on families is palpable during Father Solider Son’s earlygoing, and Einhorn and Davis’ documentary is quickly complicated by catastrophe: Brian is injured in the line of duty while attempting to save an Afghanistan police officer, and suffers severe leg injuries that send him home, permanently and in considerable agony. Whereas Brian was previously an active father fond of fishing, hunting and playing sports with his two boys, now his overtly stated fear of changing for the worse as a result of his job becomes a pressing one—especially since his discomfort leads to immobility, a shorter temper, and depression born from loss of identity. No longer able to be the warrior and provider he’d spent his entire life trying to be, Brian is a man adrift, and even though he expends energy on Isaac and Joey, he transforms into an angrier, more withdrawn version of his former self.
Despite surviving his final overseas campaign, Brian is a casualty of war—and so too are Isaac and Joey. Navigating a new reality in which their stout, energetic and outgoing father has been damaged and reduced, both inside and out, they grapple with a variety of competing feelings involving the Army, vulnerability and mortality, and how to maintain the loving bond they share with Brian. Isaac’s reaction is to first embrace a fervent strain of patriotism and, later, to aspire to attend college rather than to enlist. Having grown up anxious about forever losing his dad, younger Joey responds by wanting to follow in Brian’s footsteps—both on the battlefield and, before that, on the wrestling mat, a venue where his failures to win are exacerbated by his dad’s embarrassment and disappointment at Joey’s lack of killer-instinct toughness.
Father Soldier Son is a study of the human cost of joining the military. With fly-on-the-wall camerawork that never unduly intrudes on the action it’s capturing, and with a chronological editorial structure that creates subtle echoes throughout, directors Einhorn and Davis convey a collection of problems, big and small, that are familiar to armed-forces families. Brian’s ordeal soon leads to amputation, and a couple of different prosthetics that slowly make him more mobile, if fail to fully restore his independence and sense of masculinity. Marriage also follows, as Brian adds to the Eisch household by tying the knot with girlfriend Maria, whose own youngest son Jordan comes to reside with them. Some semblance of stability returns, albeit of a jagged sort; theirs is a makeshift existence wracked by day-to-day struggles as well as deeper-seated doubts, resentment and terror.
Brian, Isaac and Joey all confess, at different moments, to fighting horrible thoughts while lying in bed late at night, and when Joey wonders aloud if he might have become a better wrestler had his dad not been shot—because Brian could have provided more hands-on training—Father Soldier Son touches upon the little ways that calamity irreparably alters familial dynamics, and how we think about ourselves, what we strive to be, and what we could have been. Everyone’s path has been shifted by Brian’s combat injury, and is then altered again by an unthinkable tragedy that further decimates the Eischs—and for Isaac, compels him to once again reevaluate his plans for the future.
That Brian never wavers in his support of the military, or his desire to see his sons sign up to fight for democracy—which Isaac eventually does—speaks volumes about the ingrained patterns that define our lives, no matter that those blueprints potentially lead to the same types of misfortune that have ruined the present. There’s a self-perpetuating cycle at play here, where pro-military indoctrination comingles with scant rural employment opportunities and a half-hearted regard for education to drive kids into service. And muddying things further is the fact that politics themselves rarely factor into the equation; Brian only briefly wonders if getting hurt was worth it for an Afghanistan War that’s nineteen years old and counting, and Isaac admits that he knows nothing about the campaign he’ll soon be entering.
Father Soldier Son ultimately reveals itself to be a depiction of individual and collective PTSD, and the various means by which it warps, motivates and confuses. Directors Einhorn and Davis don’t proffer any concrete answers to the Eischs’ dilemmas because, in the end, there are none. A microcosmic story about the lasting destruction wrought by war—and shattering loss—their documentary understands that the battle for happiness and healing is a perpetual one, and made more difficult by the beliefs we once had, the dreams we still cling to, and the scars that never fully heal.