A work of astounding sensitivity and precision, Of Men and War argues for emotional honesty as a moral and psychic imperative. The second part of his “Genealogy of Wrath” trilogy (the first, War Wearied, followed three widows in the aftermath of the war in Bosnia), Laurent Bécue-Renard’s film avoids the politics of modern warfare, maintaining a rigorous focus on past traumas and present struggles of its subjects, a group of PTSD-inflicted veterans residing at a health-care facility in California’s Napa Valley.
Early in the film, a veteran, fixed in a tight close-up, recalls his first experience killing another man: “I don’t know what he looked like before he got shot. I know what he looked like after.” Bécue-Renard’s camera pans away from the soldiers face to reveal a room full of soldiers gripped by similar images they can’t escape, regrets they can’t shake, or decisions they can’t take back. This camera movement simply defines the format of treatment at work here—group therapy—and its ultimate purpose: As one doctor puts it, “to bear witness to you sharing yourself.”
One wonders if half of the vets in these therapy sessions wear sunglasses because of the presence of a camera or, more simply and devastatingly, because they’re afraid to have their peers look them in the eyes. Both seem plausible as we observe these men in varying states of anguish, and with varying ambitions for recovery. Bécue-Renard implicitly underlines the bravery necessary for this treatment to take root. Most of the shot coverage in the many group-therapy sessions is of isolated faces abutted by bleached cement walls; a moderating therapist is mostly invisible, a pleading but authoritative voice from behind the camera, not unlike a director.
Sometimes the patients interact with one another on camera, in a dynamic and voluble range of tones. Ultimately, the vets are alone to overcome their individual traumas. The film’s compositional conceit insists that other bodies and voices are crucial to their hopes for recovery, but reminds us of the walls that must come down first. These layers of emotional distance extend to the viewers; we develop an investment in the health of these subjects, but remain aware that we’re unable to reach out to them.
Of Men and War suggests a path to recovery just as it insists on the immensity of its subjects’ psychic damage. Wives and girlfriends appear, and seem remarkably poised and clear-eyed about the newfound complexity of their relationships. New fathers, frozen with fear, become charismatic parents over the course of the documentary (Bécue-Renard filmed his subjects across six years). These scenes, of subjects reintegrating into family and community, have an exquisite delicacy: one veteran’s leg shakes uncontrollably as he sits through an undergraduate lecture; another scolds his child too harshly, and just barely seems to realize that his anger is misdirected.
Those scenes reveal the burdens these veterans bear as they attempt to engage with both the mundane and the everyday sublime. The pain of carrying on is the focus of the therapy sequences, which are shot with a clinical eye and clipped edits. (The longer takes that distinguished the film’s two-and-a-half-hour festival cut have been chopped up rather drastically. This theatrical version has more brute force, but its vision is less holistic.) If patience and self-regard are essential to healing, group therapy is about learning how to expel and manage both rage and regrets.
Recovery is tenuous, and a cure is impossible. As these veterans struggle with impermanence, they’re doomed to be scarred by heinous and unforgettable sounds and images. The final shot, of a father hoisting his child onto his shoulders and walking away from the camera, suggests that even a spontaneous moment of tenderness can be the result of pained confessions and persistent efforts at self-improvement. Simply and profoundly humanistic, Of Men and War is a massive film wrought from tiny gestures.