It’s rare that a documentary will film for a decade, but that’s precisely what New York Times reporters Catrin Einhorn and Leslye Davis accomplished with their new film “Father Soldier Son.”
The documentary, which premieres Friday on Netflix, follows two generations of upstate New York’s Eisch family. The father, Master Sgt. Brian Eisch, is a veteran of the Afghanistan war, who near the beginning of the film returns home, with serious injuries, to raise his young sons, Isaac and Joey.
Einhorn and Davis said that in 2010, a team of reporters from the Times was covering Brian’s battalion in Afghanistan during President Obama’s troop surge. Very early on in that process, it became clear that Eisch himself might be a key figure for a documentary about a veteran returning home and how government policies affect individual warriors.
“Brian’s story kind of refused to let us go,” Einhorn said. “We didn’t set out to follow one family over ten years, but every time we thought we would stop, something new and dramatic happened in their lives.”
The early scenes of “Father Soldier Son” show Brian undergoing therapy and negotiating the veterans care system—with appointments frequently postponed at the last minute and Brian understandably frustrated at his reduced mobility. A single father, he meets a woman named Maria, whose kind heart and patience portend great things for Brian and his sons. But that is only the beginning of the family’s decade-long saga.
“We were covering it like any other story […] with the blessing of our bosses,” Einhorn said of how the Times supported their endeavor despite its lengthy time requirements. “One thing we talked about a lot was just how revealing time is. And as journalists you often don’t get the chance to go back and [see] what happened to [subjects] after the story came out.
“Obviously, we had no idea [the amount] of joy and grief that we would witness.”
The joy includes Brian and Maria marrying and uniting their families. Isaac goes through high school, and we see him on the verge of graduation and attending prom. He then contemplates following his father’s path into the military, with Brian having various thoughts on this given his own experiences.
There is also a horrible, unthinkable tragedy for the Eisch family. The filmmakers were allowed to visit with—and film—the family during their darkest hour, but by that point, they say they had earned the trust of not only the Eisches but also their extended network.
“We had been with them for so many years […] it would have never been possible otherwise,” Einhorn said of filming them during their grief. “Not only were they used to us, the community was used to us. It was ‘normal’ that Brian and Isaac and the family were getting followed around.”
Einhorn is originally from Chicago and Davis from Kentucky. Based in the New York area, they estimate they made some forty trips not only to upstate New York—a drive of some six hours each way—but to various military bases and other sites around the country to make their film.
“It was pretty scrappy, and I think that’s one of the things we really loved about this film,” said Davis. Each trip required “a tank of gas, tolls, [but] the little bed and breakfast we stayed in […] made it possible to do this.”
“Father Soldier Son” shows how overseas military service not only affects America’s warriors, but also their families. The documentary is incredibly empathetic, no doubt due to Einhorn and Davis spending so much time with the Eisch family for ten years. They still keep in touch with them, and say that despite all the obstacles the Eisches have endured, they are doing well.
“I think empathy is fundamental to journalism,” said Einhorn of the filmmakers applying their virtuosity with writing to fashioning their documentary. “We ended up observing how values and beliefs are passed down from one generation to the next.”
“Journalistically, we really did not try to imbue our own message into this film,” Davis added, adding that she believes viewers can learn much from their film. “If one of the things that they take away is a more nuanced, engaged and informed opinion about how policy affects people, then we’ll be happy with that.”
“Father Soldier Son” will be released on Netflix today.