To get to the center of the story of documentary “Father Soldier Son,” about a single dad raising two boys while fighting in Afghanistan, editor Amy Foote locked herself in a bubble for two months poring over 10 years of footage.
Journalists-turned-filmmakers Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis make their feature debut with the doc, now streaming on Netflix. In 2010, Einhorn produced the New York Times documentary short “A Year at War,” in which reporter James Dao follows a regiment of soldiers being deployed to Afghanistan. Among them was single dad Brian Eisch, a platoon sergeant and third-generation soldier. Fascinated by his story, she went to Wisconsin, where Eisch’s sons, 12-year-old Isaac and 7-year-old Joey, had moved when Eisch went off to war, to live with his older brother, Sean. “And that’s how it started,” Einhorn says.
Foote — whose diverse work on documentaries include Staples Singers celebration “Mavis,” History Channel’s “Watergate” and the sociopolitical “Hail Satan?” — joined the project after everything had been shot. “It was the most amount of footage I ever had to contend with,” she says. “ [Einhorn and Davis] had been there the whole time and were much further ahead.”
When Foote caught up with the directors, they all compared notes to see if they saw the same story points, and conversations began about carving out a narrative. “We storyboarded the scenes we wanted to work on cutting,” Foote says.
The doc follows Eisch as he returns home after a serious gunshot injury to his leg years earlier, which now requires amputation. He tries to make sense of the injury, and the family grapples with the long-term effects of military service, including an exploration of the depression he now suffers from.
A big challenge was finding the key images for the opening scene. Early footage from 2010 existed in short multimedia clips that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. “I went through everything they had shot from those early years,” Foote says.
The shot that struck her most was of young Joey playing with a hose in his uncle’s yard. Foote then cuts to the boys looking at their father’s Facebook page, going through the family photos there. “You could observe them, wonder what they were thinking and just see their faces,” Foote says.
The first half of the film examines Eisch’s return from combat and the family adjusting to life after his amputation. “I absolutely wish I was still in the Army,” the camera shows Eisch saying at one point. “I had an identity — and now, who am I?” Before Eisch went to war, he had spoken with Isaac, who allows after that meeting that his dad “might not be the same” when he comes back. Now friends and family echo that sentiment.
But a greater emotional gut punch comes halfway through, as the story takes an unexpected turn: Joey is hit by a truck while riding his bicycle.
The doc jumps ahead two months to show the full ramifications of what has occurred, before cutting back to a police car in the middle of the road as its radio explains what’s going on. “It’s almost like you’re experiencing it all in slow motion and wondering what’s happening,” Foote says.
Davis, who doubles as cinematographer, says the filmmakers spent a lot of time with the family over the years and discussed a less intimate take of the aftermath of events, but Eisch wanted her to film everything, including how the family made its peace. “We hung in the background and got what we got,” Davis says. “It’s not perfect, but we documented it as best we could.”
The last part of the documentary focuses on Isaac as he comes of age and has his own decisions to make. He had intended to go to college, but events may have changed things.
Joey’s accident “threw everything off track,” says Foote, adding, “but leaning into Isaac’s story was a beautiful way to bring it all together.”