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Review: Netflix documentary ‘Father Soldier Son’ questions human cost of military service

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Brian Eisch is welcomed back from Afghanistan by his sons Isaac, left, and Joey in 2010.
(Marcus Yam / The New York Times)

There’s a scene in the devastating new Netflix documentary “Father Soldier Son” where the Eisch family goes to the local Regal cinema in upstate New York to see “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s 2014 action-drama about Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle. Beyond its nonfiction status, “Father” is a very different type of war movie, viewing military service on a more human scale and questioning the ultimate costs.

The Eisches are first introduced in 2010. Brian Eisch, then 36, is a U.S. Army Ranger platoon sergeant based at Fort Drum, N.Y., serving in Afghanistan for a year. A single father following a divorce, his two sons, 12-year-old Isaac and 7-year-old Joey, stay with family in Wautoma, Wis., while he is away.

An emotional reunion during a two-week mid-deployment visit home is an early sign of the toll these separations take on troops and the families they leave behind. Even under the best of circumstances, this is not an easy life.

A third-generation military man, Eisch is a strong believer in the meritocracy of the military: if you work hard and do well, you will be promoted. He instilled pride and patriotism in his boys and despite the long absences, there is a strong bond. However, just two months after the tearful reunion, Eisch suffered serious wounds, resulting in a lost leg, and returned home, forever changing the family’s dynamic.

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Produced by the New York Times and directed by journalists Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn, “Father Soldier Son” follows the Eisches over a very difficult decade. Einhorn first encountered Brian while covering his Army battalion as part of the multimedia project “A Year at War,” and the charismatic soldier became the focus of an article.

For the documentary, Davis and Einhorn repeatedly visited the family in Lacona, N.Y., 40 miles from Ft. Drum, documenting Brian’s rehabilitation process and eventual retirement from the Army. He gets a girlfriend, Maria, and they are joined by her youngest son, Jordan, creating a blended family.

Brian struggles with a loss of identity, being “not mission capable” as he puts it, and despite being home all the time, his relationships with his sons suffer. Seeing their father in a different way has a profound effect on both boys, setting them on different courses. The exuberant Joey loves Army life and can’t wait to grow up and enlist. The more introspective Isaac plans for college and a career in law enforcement.

The generous access given and the vérité approach used by the filmmakers allow them to create an intimate portrait not only of a family in crisis, but a deep examination of the underlying issues related to patriotism, fatherhood, family and masculinity.

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“Father Soldier Son” is a demanding film, a sometimes brutal story told with immense empathy. There is sorrow and joy; success and failure; marriage, birth and death. The Eisches are a tough crew, absorbing the challenges and even tragedy with a fragile resilience.

“Is it worth the sacrifice?” may be the film’s key question and the response seems to be an evolving one. Even the Eisches may not know the real answer for another generation.

‘Father Soldier Son’

Rated: R, for language

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: Available July 17 on Netflix


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