There has been no shortage of documentaries chronicling the hardships faced by American soldiers on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thanks to the rise of low-cost digital cameras – which have been taken out on daily patrols, into interrogation cells, to the outermost forward operating bases and into Washington’s halls of power by pundits and soldier-cameramen — audiences have been exposed to every angle of the conflicts.
So it was more than a little surprising, after so many different takes on the issue, to sense something revelatory emerging in Where Soldiers Come From, director Heather Courtney’s emotional and engrossing portrait of America’s bravest. (After a critically lauded theatrical run, the movie enjoys its national premiere on PBS POV Thursday evening.) A film that toggles between the deadly battlefields of Afghanistan and the economically depressed small towns that line Michigan’s upper peninsula, what distinguishes Soldiers is its startling, intimate access to its characters. Courtney returned to her hometown and built relationships with a number of families over the span of several years, arriving at a hard-to-shake vision of those who have been affected most by America’s decade at war.
It’s an audacious goal, to set out to capture a soldier’s full arc from activation to homecoming, and yet there’s something curiously low-key about the film that matches its sleepy northern Michigan aesthetic. We first meet best friends Dominic, Cole and Bodi tubing down snowy hills and cranking the heat of outdoor saunas; they are just a couple of teenagers wasting away the hours, beers in hand. Their care-free façade doubles as a disguise; these are boys fretting about finances, worried about what their new job – as National Guardsmen – could mean for their future. Enticed by a $20,000 signing bonus and the promise of college tuition support, this trio has convinced other friends in their crew to go along with them in signing up for the service. Only later, after the group has commenced training, does Courtney begin the slow reveal of their hometown’s economic situation: One father is on disability, one mother swaps shifts between a half-full restaurant and a hair salon. There’s talk of the shuttered factories and mines that once bolstered the local economy. The boys make regular treks to an abandoned warehouse, where they create sprawling graffiti murals on the walls.
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Granted remarkable access to document military training, transport and life on the front lines, Courtney alternates her color palates: Bathed in brown, we follow Cole, Dominic and co. during the year-long tour of duty; surrounded by blue and green, we simultaneously track the months back home in Michigan. In Afghanistan, the boys are charged with driving down dirt roads in heavily-armored caravans and told to spot explosives before they detonate. One young man endures so many detonations and concussions that he is sidelined for the remainder of his tour. Back in the barracks, Courtney’s camera captures the slow erosion of morale and innocence: Cole speaks with surprising candor about the physical toll of war, the emotional turmoil of being this far away from family and friends and the agonizing new reality that awaits him back in the States.
It is ultimately these hometown asides that distinguish Where Soldiers Come From from other films in the genre. Soldiers captures Skype conversations between war and home and has cameras present on both ends to capture the isolation and anxiety of military life and the lonely frustration of those stranded back in Michigan. For every pair of boots on the ground, Soldiers frames a community holding its breath. And though there are numerous sighs of relief during a euphoric homecoming (“This is the greatest day of my life,” we hear one veteran mutter in astonishment), Courtney lingers around long enough to record a most heartbreaking postscript. One family is shocked to learn that misplaced paperwork has disqualified a veteran from college tuition assistance. Another of the boys can already sense the psychological scars left by his concussions. “He’s just not the same,” another woman says of her returned boyfriend, noting how his attitude, temper and drinking has changed since he first left for duty. She’s dismayed, but determined to stick with him.
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There’s a reserved, earnest pride to small towns, particularly those in the Midwest (I grew up in Wisconsin, went to school in Minnesota) where a sense of patriotic duty exists alongside fears of a shrinking middle class. These are stiff-upper-lip places where emotions are kept in check and politics are to be refrained from in public discourse. Troops leave, and families commit themselves to finding a new routine; the boys return home, and it is assumed that the population will turn out to welcome them back and wave the flag. It’s a tough place to go start asking personal questions with a camera crew in tow. And yet Heather Courtney was able to break through that, introducing us to these strangers fighting our wars, to their families who bear the burden and to those humble communities that endure upheaval with each and every wave of returning veterans.
Steven James Snyder is an Associate Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.