From the archives of Christopher Campbell. A version of this review of Dan Lohaus’ documentary When I Came Home was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on April 19, 2006, covering from the Tribeca Film Festival.
There is no denying that front-line soldiers are the pawns of war. That doesn’t mean that they should be discarded once their service is finished. With a sterling silver chess set, the different pieces may have separate tactical worth, but physically they are all made from an equally valuable substance. The same goes for human beings, right?
Unfortunately, many soldiers are coming back and treated like they’re made of garbage, as shown in the documentary When I Came Home. The film presents a history-repeated by featuring homeless Vietnam veterans and then concentrating on a homeless Iraq War vet named Herold Noel. Though diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Herold is unable to get much assistance from the government, yet because of the diagnosis, he is unable to find work. As he waits impatiently for services he’s rightfully due but unjustly not receiving, he is urged by an organization to make some noise in the media.
Of course, he gets his 15 minutes of fame/hope, and of course, as you’d imagine, despite all the support and attention he’s given by media outlets, his story affects little in Washington. No matter how frustrated an audience might get at the predictability of a fictional film, nothing matches the annoyance of a predictable documentary. With nonfiction, however, that foresight comes with the disheartening reliability of real-life and is not a fault in filmmaking. Noel does get some benefit from being the squeaky wheel, but it doesn’t make for uplifting closure. The film constantly reminds us that 100,000 troops stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan will one day return, many of them to homelessness, too. And the media isn’t going to run the same story again and again.
After Noel takes his first step into the spotlight, via an article in the New York Post, he decides that he will help out his brothers and sisters who served in the military. His plan is to motivate others to accompany and then succeed him in the public eye, but it is obvious that he shall be the first and only soldier made an example of. This sad truth makes it all the more awkward when Noel’s first apostle ends up an already cheerless defeatist, who is also too shy and apathetic towards the media to hustle them the same way, and too proud to let herself be exploited by them. She makes for a discouraging character, but her contrast with Noel makes for an interesting balance in the film. Meanwhile, an appearance by Chuck D of the rap group Public Enemy brings an unnecessarily excessive amount of hopelessness to the cause by providing only the advice to leave New York City.
When I Came Home includes stories of other vets, including one back from Iraq now living in a tent in the woods, and in doing so detracts often from Noel’s story while adding to the overall address of the issue. Of course, even while the other vets are used rather incidentally, in a documentary, it doesn’t always take one example to make a point the way it does for a broadcast news story. That is because a documentary, which is typically less seen than local TV, is unfortunately the more influential.
When I Came Home is, regardless of how pessimistic it seems, still quite inspiring and will hopefully be very influential. There is no reason for the government to ignore vets at home any more than they should abroad. For any conservative politician who spouted nonsense about how Americans who are against the war are also against the troops, this film is a must-see. For everyone else, it is simply a reminder of hypocrisy and historical recurrence.