Lately, in need of comfort and with time on your hands, you may have stumbled upon the YouTube genre of the military reunion video. Men and women from all branches of the armed forces rejoin their families in bite-sized morsels of uplift: With a shriek and a skitter of sandals on linoleum, a beaming figure in combat fatigues engulfs a kid in a hug that doesn’t end until after the camera cuts. The moving, sincere, soulful Netflix documentary “Father Soldier Son,” directed by The New York Times’ Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, is what happens when the camera keeps rolling.
Filming took 10 years, so we meet Master Sgt. Brian Eisch, a handsome, impossibly square-jawed third-generation U.S. Army soldier in 2010, returning from a six-month tour in Afghanistan, to the two sons who’ve been in his care since his divorce. In the airport, strangers applaud as the sensitive Isaac, 12, and the sparky Joey, 7, dissolve into a damply sobbing necklace girding Brian’s massive frame. It is the purest thing.
Brian spends his two-week leave in Wisconsin, fishing and pouring a ferocious amount of loving fatherhood into his hero-worshiping kids before returning to active duty. Their next reunion is different; he has been badly wounded, and his shattered leg will mark the before-and-after moment in all their lives.
“Father Soldier Son” is about a family shaped by war. But the film is quiet, captured in Davis’s cleareyed, gray-skied photography, softened by Nathan Halpern’s plangent score and arranged in a clever chronology. Like life, it sometimes skips years, only to land on an evening that feels like an epoch.
Isaac loses a little adolescent sweetness to teenage sullenness; Joey becomes a touch more wary around the camera. Brian has a loving new girlfriend, Maria, but his recuperation is met with setback after bitter setback. He starts calling himself a “used-to-could,” his masculine identity knotted into what he sees as his diminishing physical prowess and military usefulness. Time passes. Triumphs unfold. Tragedy strikes.
It’s unlikely there’s even a Mohs scale value for the hardness of heart it would take to remain unmoved by the film, but there is one disingenuous aspect. This Obama/Trump era-straddling story, of a military family with a flag on the lawn and a semi-serious joke about playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a newborn’s first song, feels implausibly apolitical, as though carefully crafted to omit the potentially divisive in favor of the universally humane.
Still, the unquestionable admiration for the Eisches — and all who serve — does not sell short the complexity and contradictions of military service, an ambivalence most striking in the ending Einhorn and Davis choose. There’s a new baby; a prom; even a bombastic ceremony with graduating cadets emerging through smoke clouds to booming rock lyrics: “This is a perfect day to die.” But the story continues past any kind of circle-of-life climaxes, instead coming to rest on a note of conflicted pride and faltering certainty. Life, in “Father Soldier Son” does not move in a circle, but in an incrementally decaying orbit around the values that, in making us what we are, also keep us from being anything else.
Father Soldier Son
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. Watch on Netflix.