Patriotism has so many faces—and is often so treacherously politicized—that it can be hard to define what it really means. Those definitions become even more complicated in the context of those who serve their country by joining the military: Outsiders may never fully understand how much these people put on the line, not just in terms of their own lives, but in how radically their families are affected.
Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn’s bracing and often deeply moving documentary Father Soldier Son—produced by the New York Times’ filmmaking division and streaming on Netflix beginning July 17—opens a window onto one family’s experience, spanning roughly 10 years. This is the story of army staff sergeant Brian Eisch and his two boys, Isaac and Joey, 12 and 7 when the film opens. The boys are living with their uncle in Wisconsin, preparing for a two-week visit from their dad, who’s serving in Afghanistan. Their anticipation is almost too much to bear: At the airport, Isaac runs straight to the window and starts waving, just in case his father should look up as he’s getting off the plane. Mere seconds after Eisch steps through the portal and into the waiting area, he’s got one boy under each meaty arm; the three cling to one another as if magnetized. Their faces are mostly hidden, but the intimacy of the moment has an overwhelming power.
Isaac and Joey’s mother isn’t in the picture, and Eisch has been raising them on his own. They’re deeply attached to him, and proud of the fact that he’s a soldier. But they worry, too, and the worries of a child are heavy for a parent to bear. Joey, still so little that he’s not beyond dozing off in the family vehicle’s backseat with his teddy bear, shows fiery protectiveness, vowing revenge on anyone who might hurt his father. Isaac’s anxiety seems to blanket everything, settling most urgently around his dad. Eisch urges his elder son not to worry about him, to worry only about himself, but it’s simply in Isaac’s nature to want to help his father—a trait that emerges in even starker relief when Eisch is wounded and returns home, his shattered leg compromising his mobility and keeping him in near-constant pain.
As the boys grow older, their roles in relation to Eisch shift and resettle. Eisch, depressed and unable to exercise, gains weight; his injury forces him to leave the military, and he eventually opts for amputation. “Sometimes I feel guilty because I’m not mission-capable anymore,” he says at one point. The military gave him some power and authority, as well as an identity. “And now—who am I?” he asks, trying to laugh.
But even though we tend to see tragedies as endings, they’re also beginnings. The lives of Eisch and his sons shift radically during the course of Father Soldier Son, sometimes for the better: After Eisch’s return, the family relocates to a small, snowy town in Central New York. Eisch has a girlfriend, Maria, a woman whose sweet smile doesn’t disguise her fortitude and good sense. She becomes part of the family, and a mother to the boys. Joey, now an adolescent, works hard to please his dad, joining his school wrestling team because his father had been a wrestling champ. But Eisch is visibly disappointed in his son’s athletic skills, lamenting that he’s just not aggressive enough. When Joey cries at a match, it’s clear how deeply these two are disappointing each other, with no easy solution. Meanwhile, Isaac continues to worry, wanting to carve out a path that will make his father proud. Eisch had joined the army largely because his father had wanted him to do so, and he hopes Isaac will follow in his footsteps. But Isaac has other ideas. Even though he’s not a particularly good student, he hopes to go to college and eventually become a police officer.
Though this parent-child disagreement rankles Isaac, it still seems relatively mild. But there’s more tragedy in store for the family, and when it strikes, everything changes yet again. Father Soldier Son has a somewhat freeform shape; sometimes it makes tiny leaps—you just have to trust and follow along. But its easygoing structure may also be what makes it feel so intimate. Davis and Einhorn—both of whom are New York Times reporters—don’t have to spell out codes of masculinity, familial duty and love for one’s country. Instead, we’re allowed to bear witness as Eisch and his family show us what those values mean to them. There’s an event in Father Soldier Son that is truly wrenching, though there are many more moments that are illuminating in small ways, some of them joyous. When you embark on a documentary project like this, there’s no way to read the future. At the start, Davis and Einhorn couldn’t have known where this story would take Eisch and his children. The movie they’ve made tells us something about the way military families function, but it also underscores the reality that all families are susceptible to shifts and ruptures, and to heartbreak. Donning a uniform in the name of your country doesn’t give you special protection from heartache, and basic training may teach you some necessary skills, but not all. The rest you have to learn as you go along. We’re all soldiers in one way or another.
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