"The Good Soldier" is a surprisingly nondoctrinaire docu about anti-war veterans.
Skillfully interweaving the stories of five different servicemen from four different conflicts, “The Good Soldier” is a surprisingly nondoctrinaire docu about anti-war veterans that marches to its own drummer. Never marshaling testimonies into an overarching exposition, filmmakers Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys (helmers of the compelling “Riding the Rails”) explore a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and attitudes, while a veritable sea of archival footage, spanning 60 years, underlines the inescapable sameness of a soldier’s singular objective: to kill other human beings. Bowing today in Gotham in honor of Veteran’s Day, the docu avoids preaching to the choir, though perhaps only the choir will attend.
Pic opens with a quote from General Eisenhower expressing his abhorrence of war (“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity”). But for the five ex-soldiers at the center of Lovell and Uys’ docu, pacifism was late arriving on the scene.
The men speak with raw emotion and startling candor, but their reminiscences initially convey no high-minded moral revulsion. On the contrary, many admit to endemic rage and addiction to violence, fostered by training specifically geared to turn Everymen into killers, as illustrated by a steady stream of historical imagery ranging from official government films to grainy homemovies.
Staff Sgt. Will Williams’ deep-seated anger followed him from the racist South to the jungles of Vietnam. Another vet from the same conflict, Chief Warrant Offficer Perry Parks, was fueled by fear while piloting unarmed rescue missions, his terror of getting shot at leading him to strafe and napalm villages; his repressed thoughts of the women and children residing there are translated into vivid aerial photography of huts bursting into flame.
For Capt. Michael McPhearson, the Army tradition was so strong in his native Fayetteville, N.C., that even after being thoroughly disillusioned by his experience in the first Gulf War, he was unable to dissuade his son from signing on for the second.
Iraq War Staff Sgt. Jimmy Massey confesses to running on bloodlust and thriving on the thrill of the hunt; now he appears on street corners with a sign proclaiming he killed innocent civilians for his government. WWII Pvt. Ed Wood describes his victimization by the prevailing ethos of hero worship, his shame at being gravely wounded on his first day of combat poisoning the next 40 years of his existence.
Disillusionment comes in various guises, triggered by atrocities that can no longer be processed. The impressionistic insertion of war footage is sometimes minutely synched to individuals’ accounts (from flashes of Vietcong sniper fire to ground-shaking mortar blasts in Verdun), and sometimes contribute to a chronology-confounding sense of systematic slaughter.
Inventive score by JJ Grey subtly counterpoints Sikay Tang’s rhythmically varied editing in a docu that cumulatively sneaks up on its viewers.