War Stories: 'The Good Soldier' Examines the Cost of Combat
Americans celebrating the bravery, sacrifice and honor of our armed forces this Veterans Day do so not only with troops facing enemy fire in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also in the immediate aftermath of the November 5th shooting at Texas' Fort Hood that left 13 dead and dozens more wounded. Against this backdrop, as President Barack Obama's administration determines whether or not to send more troops into the mountains of Afghanistan, comes The Good Soldier--an engrossing and timely new documentary about the effects of war on five men who served--from award-winning filmmakers Michael Uys and Lexy Lovell.
"We're calling it a National Day of Conversation," explains Uys (pronounced "Ace") of releasing the film theatrically on Veterans Day accompanied by post-screening discussions with veterans in selected cities (full schedule available online at www.thegoodsoldier.com). "You want those concentric circles of conversation happening, and I think that means having people on either end of the political spectrum."
The seed for The Good Soldier, a condensed version of which aired on the November 6th edition of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS, was planted while Uys and Lovell were making their first feature, 1997's Riding the Rails. That film, now a part of the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection, provided a first-hand account of teenagers who endured the Great Depression by hopping freight trains.
"We learned about this organization, Veterans for Peace, when Michael and I were working on Riding the Rails," says Lovell. "A lot of those kids got off the road by actually enlisting and going off to fight [in World War II]."
Riding the Rails won the husband-and-wife duo a DGA Award for Best Director, a Peabody Award and the Los Angeles Film Critics Award for Best Documentary. The filmmakers then started a family, had twin boys, and continued working in television, commercials and short documentaries, before being drawn back to feature-length documentaries with this new film.
"It was sort of around the time that ‘Mission: Accomplished' was declared," says Lovell, recalling President George W. Bush's 2003 aircraft-carrier appearance announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq. "I thought, Well, is it? What is this ‘Mission: Accomplished' stuff? Here I have two boys, and I really started to get very upset about where we were going."
While Lovell says her connection to her father, a child of the Great Depression himself, helped drive her forward while working on her first feature, her role as a parent helped propel her on this project.
"I feel like one film was sort of an exploration of knowing more about my dad--there was a motivating force inside me for that," Lovell says of Riding the Rails. "And [The Good Soldier] is more about protecting my boys."
Uys and Lovell attended a Veterans for Peace convention in Boston in 2004 to learn more about the organization they first discovered years earlier. During the trip they encountered two of the five men who would ultimately comprise the completed film--Jimmy Massey, an Iraq War veteran, and Michael McPhearson, a Gulf War vet who currently serves as executive director of Veterans for Peace.
"He spoke so intensely," Lovell recalls of Massey's presentation that weekend. "The whole room went to this awful place in Iraq with him. We thought he was electrifying."
"People don't really talk about it, but in documentary, it's all about casting," says Uys. "They always say that about feature films--where 90 percent of it is casting and then you have a successful film."
After developing what the duo calls a "star system" of rating potential interview subjects while working on Riding the Rails, Uys says he cast Vietnam veteran Will Williams after hearing his voice on the Internet and being reminded of Martin Luther King.
Working with director of photography Samuel Henriques, who also shot Riding the Rails, and editor Sikay Tang, Uys and Lovell capitalized on their preference for intimate, intense interviews by finding great storytellers with incredible stories.
"It's really rare that you get to linger with somebody," Uys says of keeping the camera tight even when it's a bit uncomfortable. "Most people would think you're insane to do that--to allow a pause like that--or, they want to have five cutaways during that pause. The risk is that if you're not engaged with that person, then it's just endless. But to let a moment play out like that can work really well if you're with the subject."
Utilizing rights-free footage--some of it brutally graphic--from the National Archives supplemented with other sources, Lovell and Uys found visual support to bridge the common emotions of their subjects with the horrific similarities of wars fought by different generations on different continents.
"We're attempting a visual mosaic here," Uys says. "The danger with a film like ours is that you can confuse the audience as to what war they're in and what war they're talking about. That's where I think the archival footage really helps, because it makes it abundantly clear as to where you are."
Rather than tell a chronological story focusing on one veteran at a time, the filmmakers wanted to share with the audience the common journey of a veteran from induction to service overseas and, ultimately, the return to civilian life with--at least in the cases of these five veterans--a changed perspective.
"Who has the right to tell this story more than combat veterans who have lived it?" Uys asks. "These are people who went into the military wanting to serve their country, and they did and they were all well-decorated."
One of those veterans featured in the film is Perry Parks, who flew more than 3,000 hours of helicopter combat missions in Vietnam, served in uniform for almost three decades, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Uys and Lovell met him while attending a protest rally in Washington DC--a rally that happened to be Parks' first.
"He decided that he'd had enough," Lovell says of the years Parks spent listening to conservative talk show hosts accuse liberals of being cowardly. "He was like, ‘Excuse me, but I was in the military for 29 years and I don't think we should be involved in this war.'"
The filmmakers say they encountered moments with each of "our guys" that stopped them in their tracks while conducting the interviews. "For me the most surprising, hands down, was Jimmy Massey talking about the enjoyment of killing," says Lovell. "I didn't expect we'd go there. I didn't even know that people could feel that. But the way he explains it, I totally understand."
One of the film's most memorable sequences is of a bombing run over a Vietnam farming village preceded by the image of a group of stunned soldiers surrounded by dead bodies. Accompanying those devastating visuals is musician JJ Grey's haunting song "The Sun is Shining Down." While Grey ably handled scoring the film, Lovell and Uys secured permission from Trent Reznor, lead singer of Nine Inch Nails, to use his song "The Good Soldier."
"It's really tremendous because it's a huge thing, I think, for the veterans to know that they have that kind of support from somebody with that kind of profile," Lovell says of Reznor granting permission for the coincidentally titled song to be included. "We actually named the film for what Ed Wood says about being a good soldier and also for what Will Williams says towards the end--that he was a good soldier and now he's a soldier on the other side."
Throughout the interview process, Uys and Lovell attempted to maintain a conservative shooting ratio while working on HD video-- just one of the many new tools introduced in the decade since they made Riding the Rails on 16mm film.
"Rather than shooting endless amounts of footage, which digital video certainly allows you to do more easily than shooting film, we decided to try not to--even though it's really tempting," says Uys. "There's nothing like ending up with 200 hours of interviews when you only need 40."
Uys and Lovell believe the film, dedicated to all soldiers, can appeal to both flag-wavers and flag-burners, Christians and atheists."We tried to take the pro-soldier approach so that we could have a wider audience," Uys explains. "There are certain images, I think, that are very polarizing. You don't mind staying with a film like this, though, if you have some respect for the soldiers."
"Basically, what the veterans groups want is they want people to care about veterans," Lovell concludes. "Like Michael McPhearson says at the end, ‘Soldiers serve the public; they serve our society.' I just ask that you don't do it for some hidden agenda. The top leaders need to know these are sons and daughters, and they are so young."
Christopher Bosen is a freelance writer based in Nashville, TN, where he lives with his wife and two children. Previous articles for IDA include a cover story on The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and a piece about the growth of outlets for environmental-themed docs.