'Father Soldier Son': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix/Marcus Yam/The New York Times
A deeply revealing and non-judgmental cinematic family portrait.
7/17/2020

Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis' Netflix documentary follows the lives of a military man and his family over the course of nearly a decade.

An early scene in Father Soldier Son shows the tearful reunion between a U.S. soldier on leave from serving in Afghanistan and his two young sons. As they rush into each other's arms at an airport, the onlookers begin applauding. The blissful moment captured in Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis' documentary would seem to indicate that it will be a sentimental portrait of a military family. But the film soon becomes something much more complex.

The Netflix documentary originated in 2010 as a New York Times project about a battalion's yearlong deployment. But the filmmakers decided to also concentrate on a particular soldier, staff sergeant Brian Eisch, and spent nearly the next decade chronicling his experiences after he returned home following a serious injury. The result is a deeply intimate and revealing family portrait that proves admirable in its objectivity if occasionally frustrating in its sprawling sketchiness.

The opening scene takes place in 2010, accompanied by a voiceover of President Obama announcing the deployment of 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. In an interview, Brian — a single father whose children, 12-year-old Isaac and 9-year-old Joey, are being cared for by their uncle — says that he is determined to not let the war change him and that he'll be the same fun-loving, affectionate dad he's always been.

That tragically turns out not to be the case when he comes home after suffering an injury that ultimately results in his leg being amputated below the knee. We see him suffering from constant pain, and becoming angry and frustrated, especially when his prosthetic is endlessly delayed because the injury doesn't heal properly. "I had some power. I had some identity. And now, who am I?" Brian says bitterly.

His life picks up considerably when he meets Maria, to whom he proposes in a touching moment captured by the camera. She moves in, bringing one of her three children with her, and the household takes on an air of normalcy.

Unfortunately, Brian's demons haven't entirely left him, as he gains weight and spends most of his time playing military-themed video games. "Sometimes I feel guilty because I'm not mission-capable anymore," he admits.

The film, shot over nine years, captures family moments both happy and difficult. Not long after we see Brian and Maria get married, tragedy unexpectedly strikes. The incident gives the proceedings a dramatic heft that the filmmakers couldn't have foreseen, serving as a reminder of the randomness of life.  

The documentary proves most effective in capturing the mindset of people who make the military their vocation. Brian, whose interests are mainly hunting and fishing (at one point he starts a fish bait company), defines himself by his service and feels emotionally adrift when he's forced to find a new sense of identity. Isaac doesn't want to follow in his father's footsteps, professing an intense desire to go to college and pursue a career in law enforcement. His father openly derides his eldest son's aspirations because of his low grades and points out that if he enters the military, he'll be promoted if he simply does his job properly.

That Isaac ultimately takes the military route, even though he admits he has no idea why exactly his country is fighting in Afghanistan, invests Father Soldier Son with a quality that, depending on your viewpoint, can be seen as either distressing or patriotic.

Production company/distributor: Netflix
Directors: Catrin Einhorn, Leslye Davis
Producers: Catrin Einhorn, Leslye Davis, Kathleen Lingo, Nancy Donaldson Gauss
Executive producers: Rebecca Corbett, James Dao, Sam Dolnick
Director of photography: Leslye Davis
Editor: Amy Foote
Composer: Nathan Halpern

Rated R, 99 min.