Father Soldier Son review – a documentary film with a subtle psychology and moving revelations

July 13, 2020
M.N. Miller 0
Film, Film Reviews, Netflix


The themes in Father Soldier Son are under the radar, ever-lasting, and have devastating effects that shape generations — it’s one of the year’s very best documentary films.

This review of Father Soldier Son (Netflix) is spoiler-free.

The Netflix original documentary Father Soldier Son sets you up with a devastating punch to the gut with a single stroke. Produced by The New York Times, the film covers a wide range of emotions that one soldier has to deal with when returning to the States and the toll that it takes at home. These moments aren’t cinematic mind you, there is no emotional payoff or coming to an understanding that will change the outlook — ours or the subjects of the film.

Directed by Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, they follow a military family nestled up in the great white north for a little over a decade. The film chronicles a decorated active soldier/father, Brian, and starts with an emotional return home with his pre-teen boys greeting him at the airplane doors after flying back from Afghanistan. The boys, Isaac and Joey, cry, while Brian’s voice noticeably cracks while they embrace. It’s a scene that creates a lump in your throat like so many of the videos you can find on YouTube and hits just as hard.

We find out Brian’s wife, and the boy’s mother actually abandoned the family (and even the kids) two and half years prior. Yes, this man felt such a strong connection to his country, he decided to go back overseas while his kids have no parent at home — this brings the idea of sacrifice and manhood to a new level. I think even Sergeant First Class William James will tell Brian to take a step back to reassess. However, this is real life, and great pain comes from this type of sacrifice.

Most of Father Soldier Son was filmed up and around Fort Drum, New York, right across from the Canadian border near the St. Lawrence Seaway. It’s an area that’s Republican, notably right-wing, with very low-income jobs, and, yes, as white as some freshly fallen snow. The politics though are just a backdrop, and the crust of the documentary is how subtly the post-traumatic stress (PTSD) brings out soldiers’ instincts for mobilization even over the smallest discretion or conflict. The constant feeling is of being disconnected, being on the edge, and emotionally numb when it comes to tact in even the smallest or happiest of moments in everyday life.

Brian has trouble with communication and there is a notable difference in his look in footage between his active duty and after his discharge. He has been emasculated. His identity is gone, and he can’t do the things he used to enjoy with his boys. You hear his voice simmer, and his face flushes with a hint of red as he noticeably starts to boil. There is a scene of Joey crying while his dad berates him openly when losing a wrestling match (Joey is not even a teenager yet). Even when he remarries, his wedding speech manages to take shots at his oldest Isaac that has notable sting; as we talked about before, emotionally numb to his surroundings.

The psychology involved in the film’s central character is so low key you might not notice what is happening to his surroundings while you are letting it sink in. It begins to sneak up on you and builds to an even flow. These are constant waters that slowly shape rocks for decades on the bottom of the river floor. Davis and Einhorn shape our understanding of what is a real sacrifice, the power of purpose, even the misunderstanding of American manhood, and endless questions of what is it all worth.

You could make the argument Brian may be playing for the camera, but it doesn’t paint him in a positive light. The themes in Father Soldier Son are under the radar, ever-lasting, and have devastating effects that shape familial generations. It may seem foreign to some but does cut out a slice of life that most don’t understand and many would never volunteer for. The result is one of the year’s very best documentary films.

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