Film Reviews

‘Father Soldier Son’ Spends 10 Years in a Military Family

Longitudinal portrait marks doc debut for the New York Times

Isaac, left, and Joey Eisch with their father, Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, on his return from Afghanistan
Photo: Marcus Yam/New York Times/Netflix 2020


Father Soldier Son
(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Leslye Davis, Catrin Einhorn

“It’s a lot easier being a platoon sergeant than a single father,” says Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch in Father Soldier Son. Eisch returns from a tour in Afghanistan when the long journey of Father Soldier Son begins. His two sons, Isaac and Joey, are twelve and eight years old, respectively, when he comes home. There are obvious tears as the kids run from their uncle and hug their dad. Tears of love and pride mark the boys’ joy over seeing their dad return safely. Eisch, meanwhile, breaks his soldierly composure and cathartically sobs while holding his sons on American land.

There are many more tears to come in Father Solider Son as directors Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn follow the Eisch family for a decade. The journey the Eisches undergo in Father Soldier Son is ride of pain and heartache. Their willingness to share such vulnerable moments is undeniably powerful, while the filmmakers’ commitment to their subjects is equally admirable. This longitudinal study of the effects of war on American families is a valuable portrait of the nation’s troubled decade.

The dynamics of the film change quickly when Eisch returns to Afghanistan. Now staying with their grandparents, Isaac and Joey adapt to the instability of their life as best they can. (Their mother isn’t present, having left Eisch previously while he retained custody of the kids.) The film cuts between their days growing up without their father, reflecting upon the experience of being raised in a military family, and Eisch’s tour on the ground in Afghanistan. Then shots are fired and their lives are transformed.

Eisch survives the gunfire that assails him while saving the life of an Afghan police officer, but the damage is done. The bullets ravage his leg, leaving him unable to walk and likely to lose the limb below the knee. His return is therefore bittersweet: he’s back with his boys, but life is not the same.

The film sticks with Eisch as he recuperates and adapts to life outside the war zone. He dubs himself a “usedtocould” and largely defines himself by his former abilities and duties. Calling to mind Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker with its scenes of post-combat depression, Eisch struggles to find meaning in his life outside the warzone. He mostly plays video games for stimulation while his girlfriend, Maria, takes care of the kids. Eisch drifts disconnected from his family, exhibiting clear signs of PTSD while struggling to find meaning after deriving so much of his self-worth from his physical strength.

The family’s journey continues with many highs and some truly heart-breaking lows as they adapt to their new reality. Eisch remains a hero in the eyes of his family and community—one person after another stops to shake his hand during a family trip to a historical fair. However, the passersby frequently ask Eisch if his time in Afghanistan was worth his sacrifice. He says yes, convincingly so, and even an anti-war viewer might find the questions galling after witnessing Eisch’s struggles.

As Isaac and Joey grow, they reflect the pro-war environment in which they were raised. Eisch’s philosophy and strict parenting style has them ready-made for boot camp, while the boys see military service as both a duty and an honour—and a responsibility now that their father can no longer serve. Even Isaac, barely a toddler on 9/11, says that he doesn’t know why the USA has forces in Afghanistan, but he sees the war as a duty. While he plans to go to college, his father and Maria nudge him towards enlisting, arguing that military service might simply be the most practical option for his immediate future. He’s conflicted, having known what it’s like to grow up with an absent father.

What Davis and Einhorn achieve through this long-term family portrait is an intimate essay on the circumstances that might lead a young American to go to war. Economic struggles and job scarcity are much larger contributing factors than the machismo stereotype of the all-American soldier. The dedication to the subjects is admirable, making the doc noteworthy as the first feature produced by the New York Times in its new turn towards non-fiction. It plays like a human-interest piece thoughtfully composed for the Saturday edition that uses one American’s life to inspire readers to consider the fate of the nation. While the doc doesn’t quite equal the New York Times Op-Docs that are staples in the annual Oscar race, it’s a genuinely moving account that reminds audiences that issues like war are not easily simplified.

Father Soldier Son reflects the directors’ journalistic background as it observes the characters objectively, burrowing deeper into their minds and experiences while remaining relatively neutral of the politics and views they espouse. The film is one of few notable docs to portray the world of heartland America while giving voice to the experiences of middle class conservatives without veering into the hyperbole of Trump. These are regular everyday people who make their living through the machinery of America’s love for war. One can’t help but be moved and reminded of the lives at stake on and off the battlefield.

Father Soldier Son is now playing on Netflix.