'Unknown Distance': Film Review

Attention must be paid.
12/21/2018

Gordon Clark's documentary follows former Marine sniper Douglas Brown as he travels the country talking to fellow veterans about the difficulties they experienced upon returning home.

The new documentary by Gordon Clark adds to the growing canon of films dealing with the sad travails of veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unknown Distance largely revolves around one such figure, Sergeant Douglas Brown, who recounts his difficulties upon returning home in harrowing personal terms. The film follows Brown as he travels across the country over a period of eight months, talking to fellow veterans and their family members who share their experiences.

Brown, like so many of his fellow Marines, enlisted shortly after 9/11. He had a distinguished military career, serving five tours of duty over 10 years as a Marine sniper and earning a Purple Heart at age 19. In the film, he talks frankly and eloquently about his suffering from PTSD, as do many of the other interview subjects. Many of them are seen speaking directly to the camera, delivering their accounts with barely suppressed emotional anguish. "Why are we still here?" asks one of the veterans, referring to the fact that so many of his fellow soldiers never returned from the war.

One of the doc's most moving segments showcases Brown's relationship with his Afghan interpreter/spotter Mirwais Zakhilwall, whom he sponsored for citizenship in the U.S. The two men, who remain close friends, share stories of the wartime experiences that cemented their indelible bond.   

Many of the veterans talk about the lingering psychological effects of the war and their reliance on medications that, while providing some relief, frequently also leave them confused and disoriented. That a good number of them were snipers, trained as professional killers, only adds to their emotional distress.

Although the procession of talking heads inevitably gives the doc a static quality, the visual tedium is alleviated by the filmmaker's handsome cinematography and the picturesque locations in which many of the interviews were shot. Brown, wearing a cowboy hat, is frequently posed like a modern-day John Wayne in front of striking western vistas. The film's minimal but effective narration is provided by actor Liev Schreiber, who also executive produced.

One of the principal themes is the U.S. government's failures in providing necessary post-service care to soldiers who have served their country so valiantly. As is so often the case with documentaries on similar subjects, Unknown Distance includes tragic statistics about the prevalence of suicide among veterans. One fears there will be many more such damning films to come.

Production companies: An Otherwise Production, Illuminated Content
Distributor: CINEMAflix Distribution
Director: Gordon Clark
Executive producers: Seth Ersoff, Andrea Knowles, Frederico Lapenda, Mona Loo, Carolina Vianna, Liev Schreiber, Matthew Stillman, Hardy Justice
Director of photography: Gordon Clark
Music: Gio Loria
Editor: Herman Forsman

94 minutes