Wednesday, December 08, 2021

To What Remains: The Honorable Work of Project Recover

The recent death of Sen. Robert Dole reminds us how few WWII veterans, the men of the “Greatest Generation,” are still with us. Time has continued to pass, but it is also a function of the cruel mortality rate of the battles they had to fight. Decades later, thousands of fallen veterans remain missing-in-action (MIA). Most of their families have given up hope for their recovery, but an intrepid band of volunteer divers and forensic specialists continue to privately search for the remains of the 800,000 servicemen declared MIA since the end of WWII. Chris Woods documents the Project Recover team at work and the significant friendships they forged with eye-witness veterans in To What Remains, which has special theatrical screenings tonight in 300 cities.

For founder Dr. Pat Scannon, the forerunner of Project Recover started as an endeavor for a group of scuba divers and sky-divers to pursue their sports in a way that carried wider positive implications, but it soon became a mission and a calling. Together with academic colleagues, they scour jungles and ocean floors, seeking remains, based on military incident reports.

In the process of conducting fact-finding interviews (usually informally, at military reunions), Scannon befriended several WWII veterans, who were all still sharp as a tack at the times they were filmed. Project Recover also recruited Marcus Luttrell (the subject of
Lone Survivor), who frequently joins them in the field. Throughout the film, Scannon finds himself repeatedly frustrated in his attempts to locate Lt. Roland Richard “Dick” Houle, a friend and squadron-mate of Pres. George H.W. Bush, who was shot down in the Pacific, which raises the film’s narrative stakes somewhat.

Scannon and his colleagues rightly point out the pain and uncertainty still experienced by the families of unrecovered MIA’s. When they are able to provide that closure, it is deeply poignant. It is also quite inspiring to see small town communities come together to honor their local surviving WWII veterans. Frankly,
To What Remains reminds us that we can still find the best of America out there, across the country, which is refreshing.

In some ways, Woods presents a rather straightforward report of Project Recover at work, but the emotional implications of what they do are so resonant it is impossible to remain unmoved. There are some heavy moments documented here—and well-deserved tributes are paid. (Indeed, Katharine McPhee’s licensed rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing” heard during the closing credits actually evokes the 1940s era and themes of memory and loss quite aptly.) Very highly recommended,
To What Remains screens tonight (12/8) nationwide, including the Regal Union Square in New York.