The new Netflix documentary “Father Soldier Son” lays out its thesis within its first 10 minutes.
Single father Master Sgt. Brian Eisch is reflecting on raising his two sons, Isaac and Joey, as he serves in the military in Afghanistan in 2010.
In an interview, he said how his sons have heard of other military fathers who have gone off to war and came back moody and temperamental. He replies that he doesn’t want it to be that way, that he’d rather get in trouble for having Airsoft or water balloon wars than him screaming at his kids.
After Brian is shot in the leg in battle, he comes home, as his boys would say, “different” and during the course of 10 years of filming, directors and journalists Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn follow how that directly affects the lives of Brian’s family and its future.
Documentaries often live and die on the presence and character of its subjects. In choosing to follow the Eisch family, Davis and Einhorn found a compelling trio to center a movie around.
While Brian is your typical square-jawed, military-loving guy, he also is playful and loving to his sons in a few intimate moments. Even in his young age, Isaac shows an impressive vocabulary, emotional maturity and skepticism to his father’s love of the Army and the purpose of war, while the younger Joey expresses a more jingoistic view of wanting to enlist so he can shoot bad guys.
With their mom out of the picture, we watch them grow up and slowly grow apart when Brian is forced to come home for good because of his injury.
“Father Soldier Son” has a lot to say about the effects of war, misplaced masculinity and unaddressed mental health issues, but it does that by showing rather than telling (there’s no narration or text besides datelines to give context to some of the scenes).
We see Brian grapple with his post-war trauma and through video games and becoming somewhat of a stage parent to his kids when they wrestle. We watch Isaac get torn down for being lazy and emotional, while Joey is the star child because he’s more like his father. Those are tempered with elegantly shot moments of love and celebration, like Fourth of July parties, weddings and fishing. Like any slightly dysfunctional family, it builds you up as much as it tears you apart.
While the documentary jumps around as the kids age, sometimes with no context to the time it’s taking place, and ends abruptly (don’t expect a happy, tied-up ending), its deliberate pace, all-access look and non-judgmental stance on the Eisch family makes it difficult and unforgettable.