I recently chatted with a Canadian director of government-funded documentaries who lamented the artistic restrictions that are par for the course for every filmmaker who accepts a significant amount of cash from any nation's coffers—no matter how seemingly liberal the country. I thought of this conversation as I watched Heather Courtney's Where Soldiers Come From, financed in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A four-year study of an Afghan war-bound group of friends (the mother of Cole, the goofy joker of the group, compares the boys to the characters in The Deer Hunter), Courtney's doc is equal parts heartfelt and public-television predictable.
The director returned to her hometown in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and began following these teens upon their enlistment in the National Guard, through tough basic training and its dry seminars, to sweeping for IEDs along dusty roads a world away, to their own return to the shores of a forever-changed Lake Superior. In addition to the easygoing but unfocused, fair-skinned Cole, there's his best friend and polar opposite Dom, a thoughtful and sensitive, dark-haired graphic artist. His reaction to battle is quite unlike that of their comrade Bodi, who eventually finds himself at risk for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) since he's been "blown up"—his vehicle rocked by explosives—enough times to warrant his removal from bomb-searching missions. Bodi readily admits to loathing all Afghans, and ends up declaring that the war has turned him into a racist American. Dom, on the other hand, says, "I wasn't really mad—I was just wondering," after his own vehicle gets hit. He's able to see the beauty of the Afghan children and views his deployment as a learning experience. (Once home, he even tells his story in the form of a mural—and says it's nice to be alone working on his art, to be able to think for himself outside the box instead of being a "robotic army guy." The director would have done better to focus more on such a visual character.)
Along with you-are-there footage shot from inside the soldiers' armored Humvees, the doc includes talking-head interviews with the boys as they turn into men and the traumatized relatives left behind: the worried parents of Cole and Dom (both couples still happily married to their spouses), Cole's terrified sister, and Dom's overwhelmed girlfriend, who's in for more than she'd bargained for. The camera becomes part of the family, capturing everything from the drunken send-off party to Cole's waitress mother balancing trays, all with home-video intimacy. The problem is that none of this is particularly enlightening. The boys act how typical impulsive teenagers act—making life and death decisions like joining the military as flippantly as deciding what to wear the next day. After being shipped off to a prison-like base in a strange land, one of the gang says he misses "the freedom we're fighting for." The blue-collar parents, many with male relatives who've served in the armed forces, behave like one would expect average loving mothers and fathers to behave. Cole's mother equates waiting for a son to return home with the anticipation that comes with being pregnant since your child is on your mind every single day. Dom's father admits that every time a dog barks he hopes it's not an army officer arriving at the door. But as honest as these confessions are, the film is all too unsurprising in its universality.
Fortunately, there are some blackly humorous touches. A scene in a military classroom includes a PowerPoint presentation offering helpful hints like, "Afghans are not Arabs." A soldier instructor is unable to pronounce "Hamid Karzai"—and isn't even sure he's still the president of Afghanistan. Also, the reintegration of the troops back into society at the end, and the fact that many of these twentysomethings now suffer from outwardly invisible TBI that causes debilitating and unpredictable behavior, while interesting, seems too little too late for the doc as well. It also feels like left-wing propaganda. Then again, it's not Courtney's fault that PBS dishes out comfort food for the liberal elite.