The documentary "Be Good, Smile Pretty" is simultaneously a woman's search for her father and a powerful statement against war. One cannot watch it without wishing that Tracy Tragos' quest had never been necessary, and that all the young men who go off to war would come home to the little girls who wait. But it isn't always that way.
Tragos never really knew her father. She was 3 months old when, at 26, he was killed in action in Vietnam. As she grew up, his death was rarely mentioned in their home, because her mother, Judy, still grieved, and Tragos didn't want to revive the painful memories of the empty place in their lives.
But there is a longing in human nature to seek out the parents who, for one reason or another, are taken from us; we reach out and gather in their ghosts the way a child reaches hopefully for a cloud. Tragos did just that two years ago when she typed the name of her father, Don Droz, into an Internet search engine, and her journey of discovery began.
What came up was a Web page titled "Death of the 43." It was an account of a 1969 rocket attack on the Mekong Delta that blasted one of a line of U.S. Navy patrol boats into a tangle of twisted metal, killing two men. One was the commander of PCF 43, Navy Lt. Donald Glenn Droz of Rich Hill, Mo. Discovery of the Web site and all it contained suddenly brought into startling focus the person who had been Tragos' father, the daddy who had never come home.
Therein began a two-year, cross-country journey to illuminate the memory of Don Droz and to shape that memory into a living form. His presence dominates the footage that Tragos; her husband, Christopher; and sister-in-law, Katherine, helped form into a film. It will be shown, fittingly, on Father's Day Sunday and the following Wednesday at the Laemmle Sunset 5 Theater as part of the IFP/Los Angeles Film Festival.
The film is an emotionally painful odyssey for all involved. Judy Droz Keyes, who has since remarried, cries with a depth of grief that spans more than three decades. Her deep sobs are laced among images of the man who had been her husband 34 years ago, a smiling, dark-haired sailor, who appears on the screen intercut with scenes of the war that took his life. Keyes blamed herself for letting her husband take R&R; in Hawaii, where, for the first and last time, he held his infant daughter. She believes the trip may have softened his combat edge, because he was killed two weeks later.
Men who had been on the convoy up the Duong Keo River on the day of the ambush find it difficult to put into words how much they liked Don Droz and what a dark day it was when they lost him. Former classmates from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, friends and relatives in Missouri, and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who had been a good friend, help bring him alive again.
The title, "Be Good, Smile Pretty," awkward when taken out of context, assumes new meaning when one learns it derives from the way Droz ended each letter home. Warriors, despite the terrible nature of their own situations, worry more about the impact of war on their families than they do about themselves. It is both a tactic of diversion and a caring that is lodged too deep in the soul for even the grandest documentary to define.
I watched a video of "Smile Pretty" at home, alone in a house as silent as a whisper, and found myself drawn into the lives of the Droz family. I thought about my own father, whom I had barely known, as Tragos' dad emerged in the interviews, photographs and war footage blended with great skill into a story worth telling. The film isn't only an effort to satisfy a child who has longed for a daddy beyond reach, but also to explore the terrible drama of loss that accompanies war. My father disappeared from the family not from a death in battle, but from a divorce. I feel his absence even to this day.
Tragos, who lives in L.A. and has worked in film, wrote, directed and produced "Smile Pretty," which has already been recognized as contributing to the art of documentary making. Without her obvious talent, and the abilities of those who assisted her, even this wrenching and enlightening journey down memory lane would not have been as compelling. The film is both an acknowledgment of the tens of thousands of children on both sides of the ocean who have lost fathers in war and a tribute to the fathers themselves, faces in the clouds, who never came home.
This Father's Day is for them.
Al Martinez's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. He's at email@example.com.