Troop Greeters at Bangor International Airport
CONCEIVED AND DIRECTED BY
International Film Circuit
Winner of a Special Jury Award at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival and recent recipient of the Eric Parker Social Justice Award at the Indianapolis International Film Festival, "The Way We Get By" is a moving and inspiring film that centers around a trio of senior citizens who are central figures in a group of troop greeters who gather at the Bangor International Airport in Bangor, Maine to welcome home American troops as they return from Iraq.
Yet, rather than being simply about their already noteworthy act of gathering at all hours in all kinds of weather to welcome home the troops, "The Way We Get By" becomes a transcendent documentary by gently revealing the everyday lives of this core trio as they faithfully serve while dealing with depression, financial problems, family issues, fear, doubts about the war and mortality. "The Way We Get By" is both heartfelt and intellectually stimulating, a film that manages to simultaneously tug at the heart strings while being thought provoking and challenging.
First, there's Joan. Joan is a grandmother of eight with a deep connection to the soldiers, whose initial fear and anxiety about getting out in the middle of the night quickly gives way to a fierce dedication to the task at hand. Joan struggles with the war itself, but her dedication to the men who fight it is without fail.
Then, there's Bill, an 86-year-old who faithfully went to the airport even on the day he found out he had Cancer. A veteran himself, Bill vowed that he would never allow Iraqi veterans to be treated the way Vietnam vets were upon their return. As his Cancer spreads and his financial problems grow, Bill maintains his commitment even as his life is being changed forever.
Finally, there's Jerry. Jerry could be found most days sitting in his truck with his dog and best friend, Mr. Flannagan, watching for arriving planes. Jerry's goal with troop greeting is simple- put a smile on each soldier's face, and it's a goal he meets regularly. Struggling to deal with the tragic death of his son, Jerry's also dealing with health problems and the sudden, unexpected death of a close friend.
These people are three, but there are countless others among the Maine Troop Greeters. Together, they have welcomed back with a smile and a firm hug or handshake over 750,000 troops since they began.
The film, an obviously personal one for writer/director Aron Gaudet given that Joan is actually his mother, is a touching and powerful portrait of how one group took the simplest gestures and turned them into intense acts of community service and social justice. "The Way We Get By" is a reminder that there is a time to set aside our political differences and debates for the sake of old-fashioned human decency and compassion.
By the end of the film, when the Maine Troop Greeters have been active for years and have welcomed home thousands of troops, it is abundantly clear that many soldiers have heard of this group and yet, almost without fail, their eyes light up when they see that outreached hand and the smiling faces of those who've come to say "Welcome Home!" regardless of the time it is or the weather outside.
"The Way We Get By" is both a social justice film and a deeply intimate human portrait. In fact, the brilliance of Gaudet's film may be that it intertwines the social justice into the very real and everyday human dramas of its subjects. So often, films that are cause based try to make the cause larger than life- not "The Way We Get By." In "The Way We Get By," the cause is vividly brought to life by through the frailty of those who are serving. These people are not larger than life- they are life in all its joys and sorrows, aches and pains.
"The Way We Get By" isn't pro-war nor is it anti-war, it is unabashedly pro-human being and kindness and tenderness and rejoicer of the human spirit and all it can achieve and be in its fullness and vulnerability.
It feels particularly appropriate to view "The Way We Get By" in the same month in which "The Hurt Locker" has been widely proclaimed to be the best war on Iraq yet. Perhaps this is still true, because at its very core "The Way We Get By" isn't so much about Iraq as it is about the men and women who are serving there and the folks back home who care about them.
The camera work from Gaudet and co-DP Dan Ferrigan is stellar, mostly because it maintains a natural simplicity and trusts the film's subjects without reservation. Gaudet and Ferrigan capture time and again moments of remarkable plainness that still manage to capture the true power of how these people are managing to live their lives in service to others.
There are at least a couple scenes in "The Way We Get By" that drag on a bit, and the film feels quite a bit longer than its 84-minute runtime largely owing to its casual pacing and the abundance of waiting that all the greeters experience during those minutes before the troops arrive.
One of the documentary highlights of the 2009 Indianapolis International Film Festival, "The Way We Get By" opens in Los Angeles on August 14th, 2009. For more information on the film, visit the film's website.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic