In a livestream program intersecting military affairs and journalism, the Yale Veterans Association (YVA) hosted a behind-the-scenes discussion with the filmmakers of “Father Soldier Son.” The Netflix documentary follows the life of Army veteran Brian Eisch and his family over a 10-year period, chronicling the struggles and challenges they faced along the way, including his protracted recovery from a combat injury.
Organized in partnership with the Yale Alumni Association and supported by the Yale Alumni Journalism Association, the event was kicked off by Adrian Bonenberger ’02, president of the YVA, who served with Eisch in Afghanistan, when they deployed with the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
Bonenberger prefaced the discussion by noting that Eisch was severely wounded when he exposed himself to enemy fire to save the life of an Afghan police officer who was ambushed by the Taliban.
“He ran into that open field to try to rescue the Afghan and he was shot, badly,” Bonenberger said, adding that Eisch’s heroism and sacrifice, for which he was awarded a bronze star for valor, strategically altered the relationship between their unit and local allies. “The Afghans saw that not only were we happy to fight alongside them, but we were willing to shed our blood as well.”
David Philipps, a New York Times correspondent who covers the military and veterans, led the discussion with his Times colleagues who were the driving forces behind the film: executive producer Jim Dao ’79 and directors and producers Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis.
The Accidental Documentary
Dao indicated the film came about as an unexpected outgrowth of Year at War, a Times project to follow a military unit across a full year’s deployment and document the lived experiences of troops on the ground and at home.
“We wanted to capture the full experience of what it was like to leave a family behind, to go overseas, to be deployed in difficult conditions, to face combat, and then go back home after all that and try to resume a normal life in the United States,” he said, noting that Eisch emerged as a focal point of the project because he “captured so much what we wanted to document,” including his experiences as a single father leaving two young sons behind while he went off to war.
Einhorn, who had little experience with the military prior to working on Year at War and was responsible for maintaining contact with the families and soldiers, expressed her surprise at how captivated she and her colleagues became with this assignment.
“The story just seized us and wouldn’t let go,” she said, adding that the challenges of closely covering Eisch and his family for an unusually long period was made easier by their candor and sincerity. “He and his family were such wonderful people to follow because they are so open with their lives.”
Davis, a trained photojournalist, said they never expected the project to last as long as it did nor turn out the way that it did, but that they felt compelled to stick with it for as long as it needed to go because the story required it.
“Each individual event kept pulling us forward,” she said. “We thought we would be finishing many times throughout but something else would happen and it just needed to be documented, and we were committed to seeing it through.”
She noted that over the course of their coverage, they had accumulated more than 300 hours of footage.
According to Einhorn, a major challenge was figuring out how best to edit and present the material. With so much footage, the team had contemplated a series. But after much thought and consideration, they concluded the material would best be presented “off-platform” (outside of the Times).
“We realized at some point that, whether it was going to be a feature-length film or whether it was going to be a series, its best home wasn’t the New York Times website,” she said. “And we really had to make that case to our editors.”
She recounted that after the Times agreed to their proposal, the team reached out to and negotiated a deal with Netflix, and over the course of the next several months she and Davis collaborated with a film editor to edit, storyboard, and transform the footage into what would become the final film.
Revealing Deeper Truths
In discussing the film, the creators noted that while the project initially started as a story about a soldier and his experiences at war and at home, the emphasis and direction morphed into something more as they followed Eisch and his family.
“The film is about identity, search for purpose, a search for a guiding force in your life,” said Davis. “It’s about relationships between children and their parents, and the ways that people’s values get formed and get handed down to their kids.”
Dao expressed his hope that the documentary, in addition to spotlighting the story of Eisch and his family, also draws attention to the experiences of other military families, as well as the widening misconceptions, lack of knowledge, and disconnect in the U.S. between the military/veteran community and the general populace.
“When you talk about the civilian-military divide, as there are fewer and fewer families that have relatives in the military, you see less and less understanding of what the military is about among the vast majority of America,” he said.
Einhorn underscored that the powerful narrative of “Father Soldier Son” would not have been possible without the generosity of openness, access, and trust received from Eisch and his family – more than once he had told them not to “sugarcoat” the story.
She recounted that when the team flew out to see Eisch and show him the film, which included some highly emotional and painful scenes, he paid them the biggest compliment possible: At the end, during the credits, he turned and said, “You know what, it’s true. I am still struggling with this stuff. It’s true.”