The role of the spectator frequently enters into examinations of art, but in the case of the almost religiously idolizing documentary MURPH: The Protector, the relationship between the subject and the audience seems dubious at best; one wonders if the filmmakers ever asked themselves who their film was intended for, or if it was at least a consciously self-serving effort from the outset. By all accounts, Lieutenant Michael Patrick Murphy was a wonderful person of such a giving nature that the fact that he died in combat, so as to ensure the survival of a lone comrade, seems to have been poetically preordained. Alas, the loose narrative arc given to Murphy’s life—conveyed through interviews with his family and friends, which represents the bulk of the film’s running time—never rises above hagiography.
Writer-director Scott Mactavish is dutifully respectful of his subject, but the doc plays more like an extended tribute intended only for home viewing, and the unavoidable question of what resources were available for the production (or even in existence, such as home movies, audio recordings, etc.) might account for why the film feels so thinly spread. Lamentably, there’s remarkably little footage of Murphy himself, and most of what we see of the fallen hero is in the form of photographs given a glossy slideshow treatment. This is a work that’s perhaps intimate to a fault, with many interviewees often repeating themselves and baring feelings that, while beautiful in their raw awkwardness and surely necessary for their own healing processes, convey little beyond their obvious sense of grief, one that should either be dealt with meaningfully or kept private altogether; a keener eye for editing could have made the proceedings twice as effective. MURPH: The Protector pays tribute to a hero but fails to acknowledge how many great protectors have been lost just as senselessly, and the film could have benefited hugely from at least a passing acknowledgment of the heinous political circumstances that saw him in Afghanistan in the first place.