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‘Father Soldier Son’ is well-made and quietly devastating: Review



Image: The New York Times

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Father Soldier Son — the new Netflix documentary focusing on the reconstruction of a military family — is not an easy watch. There is injury and death, misunderstood masculinity, and various hardships experienced by all members of the Eisch family. Yet, there is something to be learned from the troubling aftermath of war and its effects not just on the individuals who directly encounter it but also those who experience it secondhand.

Created by New York Times journalists Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis, the documentary is like the Boyhood of military kids, centering on the relationship between Sergeant Brian Eisch and his two sons over a nearly 10-year period. While the story opens with kids Isaac and Joey dealing with their dad’s deployment in Afghanistan, the bulk of the documentary covers the recovery period after, in which Eisch must learn to deal with a serious leg injury and find purpose in a life away from war. Meanwhile, his sons struggle to figure out their own identities in light of the man their father has become.

Father Soldier Son’s attention to detail is remarkable.

Father Soldier Son’s attention to detail is remarkable. The documentary covers all the noteworthy moments in the Eisch family, both big and small. While it shows the sons’ joy when their dad returns home, it also shows Isaac’s frustration when Brian doesn’t support his college ambitions and Joey’s distress when he scolds him at a wrestling competition.

The documentary’s conscious camera work is also notable. While there are plenty of shots that establish the setting and broadly focus on the family’s day-to-day activities, there are also many close-ups that center on the finer details of life. When the camera focuses on things like spilled juice or a cracked phone screen, it communicates the emotions of the story even better than the obvious elements do.

And though the only voices of the film come from within the Eisch family, the narrative remains nuanced. The filmmakers collect multiple angles on the occurring events by spending adequate time with each family member. It’s fascinating how their takes weave together a more complete picture of reality.

'Father Soldier Son' quietly reflects on the struggles of a military family

Image: The New York Times

While the documentary has an organic and thorough feel, it’s impossible to discuss without drawing attention to the tragedy of the subject. Einhorn and Davis didn’t know what would happen to the Eisch family when they began filming. They share genuinely happy moments together, but also experience many devastating ones. And while a lot of the Eisch family’s hardships happened outside of their control (including a shocking death in the second half), you might question whether some of the quieter difficulties were preventable, had it been through reformed U.S. military practices, a better veteran rehabilitation programs, or something else altogether. The documentary does not offer an opinion on the problem or the solution to it. What it does show, however, is that the Eisch family was not properly prepared to handle the challenges of life disconnected from war.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to confront is the documentary’s flawed protagonist.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to confront is the documentary’s flawed protagonist. There is no doubt that Brian Eisch made huge mental, emotional, and physical sacrifices to serve his country. For that, he should be appreciated. However, it is also sad to see how on many occasions after his service, he puts his masculinity before his family. He might not realize how his harsh words negatively affect his sons, but their on-screen reactions are telling. The eldest son, Isaac, explains that he feels he’s disappointing his father. He also reveals that he’s been depressed, but that his dad can’t relate because he is better at dealing with things. In actuality, his dad exhibits many signs of depression but handles it worse by implying that “being a man” equates to being tough. 

It is also concerning to see how Isaac, who ultimately decides to enlist in the Army, receives little education on why the War in Afghanistan started and whom they’re fighting against. He joins the military because he loves his country. But it’s hard to ignore how Isaac’s military training has a much stronger emphasis on the act of fighting, as opposed to the things he’s fighting for. It’s passion without understanding.

Father Soldier Son is messy and moving. It’s well-crafted, yet completely frustrating as you sympathize with those affected — especially the kids who at many times desperately need emotional guidance. If you’re prepared to grapple with the complicated hardships of a military family, this documentary might open your eyes to their struggles, even if you haven’t experienced them yourself.

Father Soldier Son is now streaming on Netflix.

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