Director: Laurent Becue-Renard
Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Though it played at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Laurent Becue-Renard's Of Men and War actually made it's national premiere earlier this year on PBS, and as such, might at first appear to be another political anti-war screed taking aim at PTSD-inflicted veterans. However, this is decidedly not the case, as Renard methodically allows physically and psychologically damaged men the freedom to speak about their trauma. It's a staggering film; delicately following the lives of several combat veterans inside a Nevada, California health facility over the course of six years. That rare documentary which transcends the format to become an intimate experience in which the camera and subjects merge into one unifying vision, Of Men and War is one of the year's most powerful films.
Much of the massive 142 minute running time simply takes place inside rooms where the men speak to a therapist regarding their horrific war-time experiences. Most of them wear dark sunglasses, perhaps to hide their true emotions, or even more tellingly, to conceal eye contact with their fellow veterans. The whole idea of crumbling macho posturing is laid bare here, as each individual presented gradually begins to crack under the sheer weight of what they've experienced. The film never judges or comments on their participation in the Iraq War, but simply observes them as vulnerable human beings, ravaged by sights and actions no one should ever have to see or bear. Girlfriends and wives appear on the periphery, but their inclusion isn't arbitrary, but instead shows the complexities of soldiers returning home from war to realize the psychic damage runs deeper than anticipated. In a way, the film sensitively reveals these brothers in arms genuine need for affirmation and community, even as they struggle to live "normal" lives.
Many anti-war pictures politicize their message with blunt force, but Renard wisely remains a passive observer. Not a single veteran rants against his government or gets into political debates, but it's clear by the tearful confessions and shell-shocked tales of modern warfare that the majority of these men are, at the very least, deeply conflicted about their actions. The complexity of emotions here run the gambit; some act out in fits of rage, others retreat inward, and there's a sense of helplessness common to all of them. The film's greatest triumph, therefore, is both it's apolitical perspective (though it still strikes cords of anti-war sentiment), as well as its refusal to offer up any tactile answers.
Our inability to reach out and help these men and in some cases, their inability to help themselves, creates a level of empathy foreign to most documentaries which seek to examine this kind of subject matter. Their struggle towards recovery is more than simply being able to talk openly, expose their emotions, and relive traumatic encounters, but rather, an entire lifetime of physical and mental anguish. This struggle, rendered so simply and humanistically, gives the film a gut-punch immediacy which comes on slowly like a wave. Gradually, many of the veterans even remove their dark shades so we can look into their eyes, and what we see is both troubling and hopeful. Of Men and War is kind of like that--extremely painful to absorb, but also strangely transcendent-- a sobering examination of human resilience in the face of unspeakable horrors.