Father Soldier Son review – painful look at a military family laid bare

A portrait of a wounded solider serves as a rallying cry for veterans with PTSD in this sad and necessary documentary from Netflix

Here is an important and quietly harrowing documentary about the toll of war on both individuals and their families, released by Netflix and directed by New York Times journalists Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis. It was shot over a period of ten years and edited down from more than 300 hours of footage into this digestible but somewhat sketchy film, though it more than sells us on the situation faced by veterans and their need for better care and support upon returning home.

Father Soldier Son finds its subject in the handsome, charismatic Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, who we first meet returning from active duty in Afghanistan in 2011 for a two week vacation. He is an almost archetypical “all-American” father: dressed in uniform, he's met at the airport with civilian applause while his kids, Joey, 7, and Issac, 12, rush into his arms. Inevitably, they adore him. After much fishing and bonding, Brian returns to Afghanistan, though not long after is wounded in action during a rescue attempt and sent home for good. He's alive, yes, but something – we see it in his longing gazes – deep and internal has been broken.

The film follows the fallout of Brian's leg injury and the black hole that it seems to create around his family unit. There is an absolutely shocking moment when, following an initial stint in hospital, we cut three years into the future and witness his physical transformation. And his personality has shifted distinctly also: gone is the cool and level-headed patriarch and patriot, replaced with a man who is consumed by guilt and frustration, no longer composed but short-tempered and disassociated with life.

There is a hint of Richard Linklater's Boyhood in the film's depiction of the young boys, who grow up before our very eyes and must face the changes in a father they once thought as perfect. Questions of masculinity and fatherhood are probed as Issac must decide whether to follow in his father's footsteps or go off to college. There's a suggestion that, following his injury, Brian is living vicariously through his children – whether they are equipped for this kind of pressure or not.

A huge amount of tension is generated from a narrative that often leaps forwards years at a time, where we hope with every shift that some progress has been made: are the family still struggling, or better off? Just when you think things couldn't get much worse, they are subjected to a completely devastating and world-crushing tragedy, the cruelness of which is so strong it almost makes the documentary feel exploitive – though of course it could never have been predicted.

Father Soldier Son is purposely apolitical, free of stylistic flourish and nonjudgemental in its approach. It lacks some finer detail, perhaps, and can feel a little fuzzy around the edges, though the filmmakers' lack of presence throughout is impressive, as though they're not there at all. It is not an easy documentary to watch and at times is overwhelming in its sadness. Nobody said a life in the military would be easy. The hardest part, this documentary suggests, is what happens after.

Father Soldier Son is now streaming on Netflix.

Where to watch online

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