Film Review: Where Soldiers Come From

Three friends from a small town in Michigan experience Army life and its after-effects in this plaintive, intimate documentary.

Where Soldiers Come From could get lost in the glut of films made about America’s invasions into Iraq and Afghanistan. But Heather Courtney’s production stands apart due to its unusually lengthy and often amazing access to the three young men it follows through a four-year period (before, during and after their tours of duty). The war-weary public might not want another movie on this topic, but as a current-day, real-life Best Years of Our Lives or Deer Hunter (the latter referenced by one of the moms), this is the one to see.

Somehow, director Courtney managed to start filming Where Soldiers Come From before the three small-town protagonists (Dominic, Cole and Matt) joined the army. She captures moments from their carefree teenage years, revealing the main reason they signed up for the National Guard (in 2007)—they were seduced by offers of money and college tuition support. Later, we see their youthful demeanor change during the regimented routines they go through in training.

In Afghanistan, the guys sweep for roadside bombs while trying to avoid the ones that explode near their vehicles. Even without obvious physical injury, all three suffer from mental stress and Matt from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). Nonetheless, they are sent on multiple missions and tours of duty (with short returns home). Back in the U.S. for good, their adjustments to civilian life are challenging at best. Dominic, for one, tries to return to the artwork he had abandoned and creates a war mural, but he and his buddies seem forever scarred.

Courtney focuses on Dominic, Cole and Matt, but also crosscuts to interviews with family members, getting a sense of the anxiety of “home-front” family life and impressions from the mothers, fathers, girlfriends and others of how the men have changed over time.

The director condenses the epic journey to 90 minutes, yet Where Soldiers Come From doesn’t feel too short or lacking in detail. This film, which was funded by and will air on public television in the near future, represents a model example of how to put together a multi-part movie without losing focus. It is also well-photographed, edited and scored (with acid guitar riffs on the soundtrack neatly complementing the action).

Purposefully, there isn’t an obvious political point of view—just an honest appraisal from the subjects themselves. (One says during a mission, “This sucks!” and another calls the Army’s recruitment promises “bullshit” in retrospect.) For those who respect the military but not the wars they fight, this is the perfect documentary. For pacifists, there isn’t enough critique of American interventions or the never-ending problem of the military-industrial complex, though the sheer sadness of the film’s tone compensates for some of the lack of editorial assessment.