Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Way We Get By

It often seems like the War in Iraq divides Americans into two groups: those who want it to be another Viet Nam and those who do not. One group of Maine citizens (predominantly but not entirely senior citizens) is determined not to see the notoriously rude homecoming receptions that marked the Viet Nam War repeated for the soldiers currently returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Three of these troop greeters who faithfully see off departing troops and welcome home those returning from their tours of duty are profiled in Aron Gaudet’s poignant documentary The Way We Get By (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Bangor International Airport is the eastern-most full-service air field in the continental United States. It also happens to be blessed with long runways and clear airspace—perfect conditions for transatlantic flights. That is why so many military transports have come through Bangor and the steadfast greeters have been there for each and every one of them.

Presumably, access to his subjects was not a problem for Gaudet, since one of Way’s primary greeters is his mother Joan. Though she had previously been a near prisoner in her home during inclement weather for fear of falling, Gaudet now loyally answers the call regardless of the hour of night or the harshness of the climate. She feels a very personally connection to the troops because her own granddaughter Amy will soon deploy to Iraq as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot.

For Jerry Mundy and WWII veteran Bill Knight, troop greeting is both a deeply significant form of service and an important social outlet. Both men still grieve for lost loved ones and contend with serious health concerns, but determinedly meet each new plane of troops as the filmmakers follow their own dramatic story arcs.

Way is a quiet movie that treats its subjects with respect. Its strongest moments show how complete strangers can make brief but meaningful connections. The audience frequently witnesses Knight thanking servicemen, only to have them turn it around and thank him for his service in North Africa during WWII, which they insist was a far worse tour of duty than the conditions they faced in the Middle East.

Director Gaudet largely keeps the proceedings non-partisan, though he does include some brief complaints about Pres. Bush and “mission accomplished” from Mundy. However, regardless of the feelings of Gaudet, Mundy, or any of the other Mainers, it is patently clear they really do support the troops.

Although the troops play an important role in Way, the focus is squarely on the three greeters and their motivations for doing what they do. It is an honest and legitimately moving film that takes seriously concepts like service, sacrifice, and patriotism. After many successful festival screenings, including this year’s G.I. Film Festival in Washington, D.C., Way opens this Friday (7/17) in New York at the IFC Film Center, with director Gaudet and producer-interviewer Gita Pullapilly present for Q&A following weekend screenings.