Throughout the United States’ decades-long war in Afghanistan, Americans have seen (perhaps even been part of) a scene played out thousands of times in airport terminals and on military tarmacs. While the permanent fixture aspect of the airport reunion should vex, the emotion of it never gets old. It gets another powerful closeup in “Father Soldier Son,” journalists Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis’ finely cut gem of a documentary about one family’s journey. Initially slated for a Tribeca Film Festival premiere, the film begins streaming on Netflix on July 17.
Moments before Sgt. Brian Eisch — on a two-week leave from Afghanistan in 2010 — walks into an airport terminal, 12-year-old son Isaac had been directing the rest of the family. Isaac wears a camo cap and a tee that says “My Daddy Is in Afghanistan. Enjoy Your Freedom.” “Hold the sign up. Look cheerful. Look cheerful,” he bosses an adult family member. Then he and 8-year-old brother Joey spy dad and leap into a long embrace. That sobbing? It’s coming from that formerly can-do kid. When Brian apologizes to his boys for his travel b.o., Joey forgives him. “You smell like a regular military guy,” he chirps. “Just how I like it.”
Sometimes a journalist knows in her bones when she’s tapped the motherlode. On-camera subjects go from interviewees to characters, examples to protagonists. That’s how Einhorn must have felt as she spoke with Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, and, even more, sons Isaac and Joey in 2010. She and fellow New York Times writer James Dao featured them in a piece for an ambitious multimedia project, “A Year at War,” which followed members of the First Battalion, 87th Infantry during their deployment in Afghanistan. Eisch, the boys and their uncle Shawn Eisch appeared in the story “Families Bear Brunt of Deployment Strains.”
In 2010, then-president Barack Obama sent an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in hopes that a surge would swamp the Taliban and buoy the Afghan military. It didn’t. Eisch, who’d been in the army for 17 years, was stationed at Ft. Drum in upstate New York when he was deployed. He was also a single parent, having gained sole custody of Joey and Isaac. When their dad left for Afghanistan, the boys went to live with their uncle and his family in Wisconsin. (There is no shortage of Green Bay Packer gear in the Eisch household.)
Einhorn invited Davis onto the project in 2014, when it was clear that the war continued to shape the family. Between that year and 2019, the filmmakers made, according to press notes, more than 30 shooting trips. If the Times’ blockbuster package went for breadth, “Father Soldier Son” tightens the focus by visiting the Eisches over a 10-year period, through deployment and returns, devastating setbacks and modest yet touching triumphs.
Parenting in the midst of personal trauma becomes a theme once Brian’s leg is severely injured on a mission outside of Kunduz in 2010. When the boys visit him at Walter Reed Army hospital, everyone’s relieved that he didn’t lose the limb. Even so, pain and Brian’s awareness of his physical limits become daunting hurdles. Brian coins a wry-sad phrase for his current state: he’s a “used-to-could.” When he makes the decision to have his leg amputated and begins that new phase of life, it’s among the most illuminating in a movie with no shortage of insights.
For a few years, it’s just the three guys. In 2014, Brian’s girlfriend Maria enters the picture, along with her youngest son, Jordan. She’s an understated yet vital addition to the family — and the film. A few times, the filmmakers look to Maria to state what is likely evident to viewers but is tamped down by Brian’s need to present a brave face. (Yes, even when he’s admitting how hard that is.) After he gets frustrating news from his doctors, Brian grows quiet. “Ninety percent of the time, he’s playing stupid videogames,” Maria says at one point. “He’s not engaging with us as a family.” It feels less like a judgment than the sharing of an important fact, a rebuff to our too-easy hope that everything is fine. Brian is as honest with the filmmakers as he can be. How frank he can be with himself is another issue.
Throughout his youth, Brian wrestled competitively. At different points in the film, Isaac and Joey each take on the sport, which provides an apt metaphor. Together and separately, they grapple with notions of identity and duty, masculinity and love, possibility and thwarted hope.
After a tough match, Joey, then 11, says, “Sometimes, I lie in bed thinking what a good wrestler I’d be if he hadn’t got shot.” Yes, even parents who try mightily can’t fully protect kids from their own complex ways of navigating the world, the family, their place in both, even their own melancholy.
Einhorn and Davis let viewers decide how to feel about the more freak-fan aspects of military life — the decal infant onesies, the sloganeering — and war. A late scene shows columns of young soldiers emerging from a thick smoke in formation, marching toward their families, who sit in bleachers ready to celebrate their kin (Isaac among them) graduating from basic combat training. It’s beautiful — and troubling.
Credit editor Amy Foote, too, for helping craft the documentary’s judgment-free zone. The film’s structure and pacing prioritize connection and understanding over ideological differences. Nathan Halpern’s understated score and co-director-cinematographer Davis’s visual appreciation of the harsh then bountiful landscape of upstate New York and rural Wisconsin provide similar opportunities to ponder the big questions the Eisches face.
Alas, one advantage of streaming “Father Soldier Son” became clear at the documentary’s most unforeseen, shattering moment. Turns out that in the comfort of your own home, strangers can’t hear you scream “No! No!” at the screen. No, they can’t hear you sob for a death in the family of which — for the span of 10 years, the span of a 100 minutes — you have become part.