'Of Men and War' ('Des hommes et de la guerre'): Cannes Review

OF MEN AND WAR Cannes Film Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

OF MEN AND WAR Cannes Film Still - H 2014

An illuminating portrait of psychologically damaged Iraq War veterans that works as both a compelling network narrative and a vital historical document.

French director Laurent Becue-Renard chronicles a group of PTSD sufferers in his latest documentary, presented in a special screening at the Cannes Film Festival.

CANNES -- The horrors of the battlefield come home to roost in ways that are both riveting and deeply disturbing in Of Men and War (Des hommes et de la guerre), a remarkable chronicle of Iraq War veterans suffering from the devastating effects of PTSD. Made over a period of five years at a military hospital in northern California, director Laurent Becue-Renard’s engrossing study of soldiers coping with trauma through intensive group therapy offers a rare look at real men shaken by real experiences, underlining the monumental courage it takes for them to get their lives back on track.

Reminiscent of John Huston’s controversial and longtime banned WWII study, Let There Be Light, as well of the narrative-infused documentaries of Frederick Wiseman or Raymond Depardon, this second installment in the filmmaker’s Genealogy of Wrath trilogy has the depth and emotional weight of true fiction, yet also functions as a pure clinical inquiry into the psychological healing process that many veterans undergo. War could thus reach both select theaters and specialty broadcasters, provided that it finds distributors willing to give it the TLC it deserves.

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It’s been over a decade since the U.S. launched its invasion of Iraq, and while the conflict officially ended when the last troops pulled out in late 2011, for many it may already seem like a fading memory marked by controversy and disappointment. But for those soldiers who were actually there, the war will probably never be forgotten, while for others it’s an event they relive every waking minute of their lives.

That’s especially the case for the dozens of ex-military men lodged at The Pathway Home, where Vietnam vet Fred Gusman conducts group discussions for shell-shocked marines and medics institutionalized for PTSD. Known on screen only by their first names, these are men severely scarred by the perils of combat, their minds filled with anger, remorse and intense anxiety -- some to the point that they can barely function and exist in a constant state of terror.

Following their evolution both at the facility and, when possible, at home with their families, Becue-Renard reveals how very profound such emotional wounds can run. “I’m not angry at Iraq. I’m just angry in general,” one soldier explains, and that sums up the vastness of the problem. Another veteran pinpoints how seeing fellow troops die makes it impossible to sustain a working relationship as a civilian: “It’s hard being close to anybody because you know they’re going to leave anytime.”

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Indeed, a large part of what makes Of Men and War compelling is the way each character manages to speak his mind so sincerely. Some do it with a brand of street-wise impassiveness, recounting horrific scenes through the repeated use of “yo,” “bro,” and “dude.” Others are so shook up but their experiences, they only get a few words in before slamming the table and abruptly going out for a smoke break.

These are naturally gifted storytellers who honed their skills in combat, and the director, along with editors Isidore Bethel, Sophie Brunet, and Charlotte Boigeol, shapes years of discussions into a workable scenario with several plotlines, each of them showing the slow and steady progress -- or regress -- of its hero.

The result is a rather unforgettable experience, even if it can sometimes feel stretched at nearly 2 ½ hours. But when, after a lengthy ellipsis, the filmmakers pick up their subjects a certain while later, it becomes clear why it took so long: There are certain traumas that only time and treatment can heal, and others that will never heal at all.

Production companies: Alice Films
Director: Laurent Becue-Renard
Producer: Laurent Becue-Renard
Director of photography: Camille Cottagnoud
Music: Kudsi Erguner
Editors: Isidore Bethel, Sophie Brunet, Charlotte Boigeol
Sales agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 142 minutes