The Way We Get By -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- With Hollywood dramas doing their best to ignore the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the stream of non-fiction films having dried up to a trickle, films like Aron Gaudet's wrenching "The Way We Get By" are even more important than they otherwise would be. This isn't to say that Gaudet's documentary has even a hint of an eat-your-broccoli lecture to it - that couldn't be further from the truth. But while watching the film, it's hard to escape the sense that one is witnessing a dispatch from a lonely outpost of the forgotten wars.

Gaudet's film follows three seniors in Bangor, Maine, who have spent much of the last several years at the airport (a modest facility whose "International" status seems mostly honorary) greeting soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The two men and one woman are part of a loose volunteer network who show up any time of the day or night to offer hugs, cookies, phone calls home to Mom, and the occasional off-color joke to the dazed youngsters waiting for the flight that will actually take them home.

If Gaudet had been content to simply show some well-meaning volunteer work and the soldiers' undeniably grateful response, he wouldn't have had much of a film. But under his skillful and patient control, "The Way We Get By" becomes a bracing portrait of three fascinating individuals who use this work as a means to keep living.

The widowed 86-year-old World War II veteran Bill Knight might be heavily in debt and stuck in a fantastically decrepit house (his housekeeping is of "Grey Gardens" caliber), but standing under fluorescent lighting and giving hearty well-wishes seems to be what he lives for. The same goes for the breezily convivial and barrel-chested Jerry Mundy, 73, whose personal assessments are as forceful ("If I weren't so old and fat, I'd go [to fight]") as they are revealing ("I don't know what I'll do when they all come home").

Not surprisingly, Gaudet's 75-year-old mother Joan provides one of the film's most potent elements. A saintly-seeming worrier who has to use a walker but doesn't let that stop her from driving out to the airport in the middle of the night, Joan appears close to tears just at the thought of yet more soldiers getting on planes (something she can't watch).

It's this kind of soul-sickening concern, and the deep well of compassion behind it, that helps make "The Way We Get By" such a stirring experience. As the three volunteers dutifully smile and chat with all those who have escaped death on faraway battlefields, they confront mortality on their own. Jerry waits in his truck by the airport with his faithful dog, watching for the troop planes and trying not to remember the tragic demise of his son. Meanwhile, Bill fights off prostate cancer, and Joan tries not to think about her granddaughter Amy, soon deploying to Iraq as a medevac pilot.

No matter what they have to contend with, though, the only thing these three would really seem to complain about is the war itself, which continually lurks in the background of this bright but death-shrouded film as a horrible thing indeed but nevertheless a reason to keep getting up in the morning.

Opens: Friday, July 17 (International Film Circuit)
Cast: Bill Knight, Jerry Mundy, Joan Gaudet
Director/editor: Aron Gaudet
Producer: Gita Pullapilly
Executive producer: Warren Cook
Directors of Photography: Aron Gaudet, Dan Ferrigan
Music: Zack Martin
No rating, 84 minutes