Of Men and War begins not with a bang or a whimper but with a group of war veterans complaining about traffic. They’re stuck in a minivan in San Francisco, the closest major city to the veterans home where they live. They’re loudly frustrated and, frankly, more than a little intimidating. From its very first moments, Laurent Bécue-Renard’s intimate epic of life after war is about anger. These men have seen a lot of horrible things. They’ve lost friends. They’ve watched their colleagues die, as well as their enemies. But this dramatic tumult is not the initial spark of this French documentary. Its overture is, instead, the image of the angry man lost at home that has occupied America’s cultural memory of war since at least The Best Years of Our Lives.
Thankfully, Bécue-Renard uses the specter of lightly bubbling rage as a starting point rather than a governing theme. Of Men and War is a slow, contemplative burn of a movie. Its raw material is the group therapy session, an important part of life at The Pathway Home in Yountville, California. The men share war stories, not as a recreational activity over a beer, but as a means of letting out the events that sparked their posttraumatic stress disorder. There are medics who are scarred both by their experiences mending wounds and by the lingering pain of their own injuries. Other men are haunted either by having witnessed death on the battlefield or by having caused it themselves. One man tells how he accidentally killed his comrade-in-arms because he forgot that his weapon was loaded.
These meetings are simply but starkly shot. Bécue-Renard almost never shows any of the facilitating therapists, instead focusing on the veterans’ stories and the way they interact with each other. The men frequently struggle through these discussions, and occasionally against the process itself. They wear baseball caps and dark sunglasses, shielding their eyes from social situations. The air is thick with real tension, anger in response to anger. Sometimes this leads to conflict, though this verbal sparring never lasts long. Moreover, warmer scenes do emerge as well, showcasing mutual support and understanding.
Beyond the therapy, Of Men and War is full of the sorts of scenes that we’ve become used to in documentaries about veterans. Bécue-Renard follows his subjects to their family homes, observing one man taking early morning walks with his mother, another on a trip to the beach with his wife and child. Back at Pathway, meanwhile, there are parties and military action figures. The only thing missing from the usual playbook is the extensive use of violent video games, so effective a component of 2011’s Hell and Back Again.
Sometimes these moments feel obligatory, particularly the collective patriotism of parades and ballgames. On the whole, however, Bécue-Renard is very careful to elongate and blend his various themes. The first hour or so of the film is focused on narrative memory, the images of violence and tragedy that haunt the soldiers. Then the portrait is made broader, incorporating more aspects of veteran life. Wives, parents and children come to the fore. The testimony of partners, concerned about the safety of their children in the context of PTSD, is a crucial element. These varying threads are not structured into chapters but woven into each other quite naturally.
The greatest achievement comes in the closer editing of the many, many scenes of group therapy. There are three credited editors: Isidore Bethel, Charlotte Boigeol and Sophie Brunet (the last of whom recently edited Blue Is the Warmest Color). Not once does a scene end with facile resolution or blunt emotional recovery. No bows are tied onto the psychology of these soldiers. Instead, cuts come after smoke breaks and lingering arguments, frustrated expressions and awkward silences. Bécue-Renard is not interested in showing that PTSD can be cured, or even ameliorated in any painless or concrete way.
This strikes home in one scene toward the end of the film, when a therapist is finally shown speaking at length to one of his patients. His assertions of progress, however tempered and professional, seem almost falsely palliative. Yet it wouldn’t feel this way if it were earlier in the film. After two hours of these sessions, our trust lies not with the apparatus of recovery but with the men themselves. It is not that they will never live easier, far from it. Rather, it is that Of Men and War refuses to mask or simplify the harsh realities of PTSD. This stubbornness, an insistence that the roughness of war be taken seriously, makes the film an essential document of 21st century American conflict.
A previous version of this review referred to Of Men and War as a Swiss documentary. It is a French documentary with Swiss minority co-production.
This review was originally published on February 18, 2015.