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'Father Soldier Son' review: A major achievement in documentary filmmaking

Pictured: Isaac, left, and Joey Eisch with their

Pictured: Isaac, left, and Joey Eisch with their father, Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, on his return from Afghanistan from leave in Netflix's "Father Soldier Son." Credit: The New York Times/Netflix/Marcus Yam

DOCUMENTARY "Father Soldier Son"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming now on Netflix

WHAT IT'S ABOUT "Father Soldier Son" follows a military family over the course of nearly 10 years, focusing on single father Sgt. First Class Brian Eisch, an active duty soldier in Afghanistan when the picture commences in 2010, and his sons, 12-year-old Isaac and 9-year-old Joey.

New York Times journalists Leslye Davis and Catrin Einhorn capture the Eisch story in a remarkable feature documentary, now streaming on Netflix, that explores expansive themes such as how post-traumatic stress disorder plays out in everyday life and the ways in which masculinity is perceived and valued.

MY SAY Cinema is a uniquely powerful art form when it comes to conveying the passage of time, collecting a series of ephemeral moments and assembling them into a finished collage that moves and breathes and "gives us the impression of having touched life itself," as Roger Ebert once wrote.

In just 100 minutes, "Father Soldier Son" distills more than nine years of the life of the Eisch family into a work that becomes something more than the portrait of a veteran on the homefront, or of sons trying to live up to the example and expectations of their father.

Through an unvarnished depiction of this family amid serious highs and lows, it engages with the difficult ways in which our private and communal worlds can clash, and the burdens of a past that cannot be extricated from the present.

Transforming such a significant endeavor into a single feature documentary stands as a major achievement in editing and storytelling. The filmmakers have a clear enough grasp on what they intend to portray — a father and his sons searching for an identity, an answer to that eternal and unanswerable question of "who am I" — that there is not a wasted moment.

The movie highlights the shifting perspectives on the part of the eldest son, as Isaac struggles with the question of whether he should sign up for the military or pursue college and finds himself reconsidering the unabashed adulation of his dad's soldier's life that characterized his younger years. 

Joyful moments seamlessly transition into tragedy; the high of the reunion of father and young sons that opens the movie, when Sgt. Eisch returns home for a two-week leave, becomes a harrowing low when he's soon seen in close-up at Walter Reed hospital, having been shot while attempting a rescue and facing the loss of his left leg.

Unable to resume active duty, he is cast adrift, with psychological wounds that cut as deeply as the physical burden he must shoulder, trying desperately to conform to his most cherished sense of what a man should be for his family.

Empty spaces and darkened rooms communicate volumes about the experience of a person who proclaims his disgust at having become "a burden," and the struggle to ward off this persistent sense of self-loathing becomes a key factor in shaping the contours of the family's existence in the ensuing years.

But so, too, does the arrival of new love Maria, a bedrock of support for Sgt. Eisch, Isaac and Joey, while a visit to a renaissance fair in their new home of Central New York and other happy moments further enhance the power of this story of a family growing and evolving together.

BOTTOM LINE This is a major achievement in documentary filmmaking, capturing something essential about how our families shape us and help us make sense of the inexplicable.

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