Review by Justin Goodman
Perhaps no one is better suited to appreciate Laurent Bécue-Renard’s Genealogy of Wrath than the American poet Brian Turner. When Bécue-Renard was putting together the first film of the trilogy (Living Afterwards: Words of Women, which showed the impact of the ’92-‘95 Bosnian War on its widows during the late ‘90s), Brian Turner was deployed on a peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. In his newest film, Of Men and War, he touches on a subject perhaps more relatable to the Iraq War vet poet: a studious, quiet display of Afghanistan and Iraq War vets struggling against PTSD in Pathway Home, one of the few residential treatment centers for this disorder. The experience of these men can be summed up through Brian Turner’s “The Hurt Locker”—“Nothing left but hurt here./Nothing left but bullets and pain/and the bled-out slumping.”
In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Bécue-Renard explains he and his editors were left with “500 hours” of film through which they sorted “for the next four years” as they shot scenes with the vet’s families post-therapy. Their truth of this can’t be contested after watching Of Men And War; it’s the perfect example of a film whose slight fictions—while playing in a linear fashion, the real chronology isn’t linear—reveal truth more strongly. For the camera is strictly therapeutic, never going for a stranglehold, and are the parlor tricks of documentaries (vibrato strings, formal interviews, a narrator) are set aside. This leads to the vets recounting their traumas with unflinching and tearful regret without interruption. How do you turn away when a crying man recounts a knee-jerk headshot and, when he looked at the body, defensively explains, “it’s not like I knew what he looked like before”?
Of all the stories told, this is a tamer one. But this is largely because it’s impossible for a non-combatant to truly appreciate the horrors of war. Of Men And War doesn’t try to bridge this gap that makes the film so gripping. What it does instead is replicate 12 Angry Men: It’s not just the tight framing and tension that drives the emotions of the stories, but the sincere psychology that’s caught beneath the rubbles of human anger. Outside of therapy, the vets are seen bantering and teasing each other with varying degrees of laughter, discomfort, and possible fistfights, all of which is presented with an unmitigated authenticity that flows naturally from drama to drama to heartbreak. Instead of providing a dull and grim story about the violence of war riddled with exposition, Laurent Bécue-Renard frames the story around the ever-present threat of explosion that comes with being locked in a small space. The fear of a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the fear they live in upon returning home.
Why else would the supposedly celebratory experience of returning home be overhung with such gloom? Although largely set aside, no, Bécue-Renard did not forget the wives of the veterans. Since they’re not the subject of the documentary, however, it’s not surprising they come to stand in for the struggle of domesticating oneself after “being hostage to the warzone,” as one vet puts it. Despite its essentially happy ending (the vets graduate from the program), it doesn’t ignore the dangers that will continue after the credits. Almost all the vets come home to children, or planning on having them. The tensest of moments actually comes from one of the vets restraining himself when his young daughter decides to pretend to be mute. What’s ordinarily cute becomes ominous. Especially when overlaid with the guerilla tactics of terrorists: sending children in front of the Humvee in order to stop, and ambush, moving troops.
I will excitedly wait another five years if need be for the Genealogy of Wrath trilogy’s final film. Laurent Bécue-Renard has created a style that documents without filing, excites without simplifying, and glides into one of the most troubling effects of war that almost no one talks openly about. It would be wrong to call Bécue-Renard brave, of course, as I think he would agree, because Of Men And War is meant to showcase the bravery of survivors. Regardless of your support for the wars involved, the film demands you not ignore the good intentions and strength it takes to decide whether to drive your Humvee around a child or through them. What will we live with if we decide to kill, much like in 12 Angry Men, is the question for this moral jury of former soldiers. And with its bleak hope, Of Men And War offers a better future without ignoring these men “open the hurt locker and learn/how rough men come hunting for souls.”