The devastating toll of post-traumatic stress disorder inflicted by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars on U.S. soldiers is vividly presented in “Of Men and War,” a slow-burn documentary from France’s Laurent Becue-Renard. Over a lengthy running time, veterans at the Pathway Home in California are observed venting their anger in group therapy sessions, where they are encouraged to reveal traumatic events from their years in combat, then grapple with feelings of guilt and self-loathing. Documentary film festivals and niche cable TV rep the best chances of further exposure for this affecting specialty item following a Cannes Special Screenings bow.
Becue-Renard, whose earlier feature doc “War-Wearied” (aka “Living Afterwards: Words of Women”) won the Peace Award at the 2001 Berlinale, presents his new film as the second installment of a proposed “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy. Utilizing a strict fly-on-wall format, with no interviews or captioning, the unseen, unheard Frenchman lets his material do the talking, gradually revealing the rhythms and processes of the residential therapy center. Located in pleasant Yountville in Napa Valley, Calif., Pathway was founded in 2008 by Fred Gusman, who pioneered new treatment programs for Vietnam vets in the late 1970s.
The film’s rigorous approach will appeal to documentary purists while challenging more general audiences who might care to know more about Pathway, Gusman and his philosophy. Details including where and when each veteran served, military division, name, marital status and treatment history emerge in haphazard fashion, gradually allowing attentive viewers some meaningful access to the individual subjects.
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In the early running, Becue-Renard is in no hurry to endear the audience to the men interviewed, whose seething resentments and emotional unavailability might seem indistinguishable from narcissism. But as they tell their stories — innocent children run down, faces of unarmed civilians shot off, best friends accidentally slain — and the therapy begins to break through the macho hostility, engagement accrues. Rejecting a linear chronology, the filmmaker saves the most impactful material for the final stretch, often involving medical personnel who are most consistently exposed to grisly carnage.
Becue-Renard’s approach to filming involved spending an initial five months of quiet observation building trust with the staff and residents, then nine months of shooting, returning over a further four-year period to catch up with the veterans now returned to civilian life. Expeditions including mountain hikes, the beach, a patriotic parade and a bowling alley provide necessary pauses from the therapy sessions, while also lending the film some handy visual contrasts. Photography and sound are overall crisp; score, virtually non-existent.