It’s hard to call Sebastian Junger’s compelling new documentary, The Last Patrol (2014), an anti-war film … or, for that matter, a pro-war movie. That’s in part because this picture, which kicked off the American Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Film Festival Thursday night, is too textured to peg in a specific hole. The account of Junger’s miles-long walk north along roads and railway tracks in search of America with his dog Daisy and three friends (two of whom, Brendan O’Byrne and Dave Rolsch, appeared in the 2010 documentary Restrepo, which Junger co-directed), The Last Patrol is a nuanced look at the needs of people who have been removed from fighting and how they’ve adapted to the country that required so much of them.
And not everyone in the film has found post-war life easy. O’Byrne, a soldier in Afghanistan, has battled alcoholism (though in a thoughtful Q&A panel following the film, he revealed that he is currently one-year sober). Guillermo Cervera, a combat photojournalist who accompanied them on the trip, has his own demons, including strong philosophical disagreements with his father, a weapons dealer. And Rolsch, who ultimately returns to Afghanistan, misses the camaraderie of his friends in the platoon, as well as the processes and procedures of everyday army life.
Junger himself is on a quest for meaning, and at points, the film seems to be more about himself than life after war. In fact, it starts with a conversation between Junger and his colleague, Tim Hetherington, who suggests on a train ride that Junger, a war journalist, document such a trip along the rails. Hetherington was killed in 2011 in Libya while covering the fighting in that country, and at times, The Last Patrol feels like an intimate tribute to him. During the course of the film, Junger admits that in his life he has repeatedly tried to test himself through arduous physical trials – running, sleeping outdoors and so on – and the film continues in this vein, following the comrades as they take shelter under a tarp in the rain, trek through forests and interview people they meet on what they like most about America. All of them are searching for answers, except for the incorrigible Daisy, who adds welcome levity through her complete dedication to fetching sticks and getting people to throw them for her. But although there is much humour in the movie, the ideas presented are very serious. What role does war have in people’s lives, and why do they gravitate toward it? Why can’t some people remove it from their being after leaving it? And is it necessarily a bad or a good thing?
Junger’s filmmaking style is very simple, unpretentious. Shots from a handheld camera are interspersed with more static cinematography, and the images he captures – busy roads, desolate railroad tracks, depressed neighbourhoods – aren’t always beautiful. A camera attached to Daisy’s back showcases the world from her point of view: jumping through water, walking along the street. Through it all, still photographs from Cervera make their mark, showing a wide range of people they meet on their journey, including a clown who makes an unexpected appearance in one locale, as well as the friends themselves.
There’s music, too, somber, voiceless tones accentuating the action, plus a smattering of songs, one of which makes an angry, profane statement about the consequences of being a war hero. Sometimes Junger just lets the camera roll as people talk, which offers an off-the-cuff feeling that still allows for some powerful insights to be made. A discussion of what it means to be a man. An argument between O’Byrne and Rolsch about the need to follow or reject orders. Editing is unflashy. The drama is inherent.
That’s one of the best things about The Last Patrol; there’s no glitz or glamour here – just the account of a meaningful trip across part of the country with a group of likeable comrades. And yes, they are likeable. You won’t find an intense criticism of warriors’ motivations in this documentary. It’s not really about that. You get to know the people involved, understand them without judging them. You don’t necessarily agree with them. But you do learn where they’re coming from.
In the panel following the film, O’Byrne indicated that an understanding among the general public of what soldiers go through would be helpful as they make the transition to civilian life. Maybe The Last Patrol will assist in that regard. It certainly provides a variety of perspectives on combat and the adjustments people make afterward. That it doesn’t make a specific statement decrying or advocating war is a point in its favour. That’s something to be appreciated in this day and age. Something different. And perhaps what defines America after all.