Kindness is not usually a quality associated with political documentaries, but it may be precisely what rescues Edet Belzberg’s insightful, absorbing film about military recruitment from being shipped off to a desert of indifference. A portrait of a crack Army recruiter and several of the oh-so-young people he convinces to join the service, “An American Soldier” doesn’t pander or judge, and as such will make itself palatable to a much wider audience than a war doc might otherwise. Theatrical prospects may be limited, but resonance should be far-reaching.
The most overtly critical aspect of Belzberg’s film is also its opening salvo — a survey of farmland and factories, dilapidated housing and rural disorder, implying what the movie then comes out and says: that a disproportionate number of people serving and dying in Iraq come from small-town southern America. How they get there, rather than why, is the point of “An American Soldier.” It’s a film about process: the seduction process.
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In what becomes an unavoidable allusion to the Maysles brothers’ “Salesman,” Belzberg present Sgt. 1st Class Clay Usie, one of the Army’s most productive recruiters and a true believer (“I go out and look for patriots,” he says). He may be a huckster, but he’s convinced himself, too. Embodying a certain macho perfection, from his posture to his gung-ho attitude, he gives impressionable, unmolded Louisiana boys something to aspire to, partly because he’s so invested himself: During a college-prep night at the local high school, 90% of the parents leave before Usie can deliver his Army-is-the-answer speech. He looks genuinely hurt.
Usie also gets much more deeply involved with his charges — Belzberg focuses on a handful: Matt, Chris, Bobby and Lauren — than one might expect. He coaxes and cajoles the overweight Chris through a required two-mile run; he serves as best man at Matt’s wedding, after Matt enlists. He attends a memorial service for soldiers he’s indirectly sent to Iraq, maintaining his pro-mission stance and trying to comfort the grieving. What we see, as Belzberg moves away from enlistment to the rigors of boot camp — where things are hardly as rosy as Usie has implicitly made them out to be — is the betrayal inherent in the recruitment system.
“American Soldier” isn’t a particularly good-looking movie; the HD camera work being more serviceable than aesthetic, but the editing by Chad Beck and Adam Bolt is fluid and Belzberg’s sense of storytelling is sound. A far superior film to her much-lauded “Children Underground,” “Soldier” regards Usie with enormous respect and treats the kids — who could have been made to look ignorant, deluded or needy — as simply young, awkward and unformed. She lets others deliver the bad news: “The most precious thing we give our country is our children, sometimes,” says Bobby’s father, who is opposed to his son’s enlistment. Belzberg’s film is about how parents become reluctant donors, and how the fodder of war marches off of its own accord.