(2020) Documentary (Gravitas) Tim O’Brien, Dan Rather, Timmy O’Brien, Tad O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Ben Fountain, Marlon James. Directed by Aaron Matthews
War is hell, we all know that. It is a last resort, something nobody wants to see except for a segment of society enamored with the nobility of sacrifice to an almost morbid degree. So, too, writing is hell. Conjuring words from the deepest places in our minds, the most hidden, private, personal spaces laid bare for all to see – the process is not so much sitting down at a laptop and typing away as ripping bits of your flesh and soul away with tweezers. For the good writers, that is; that goes without saying.
Tim O’Brien served in Vietnam an his experiences there fueled eleven books that are among the best ever written by an American. His tomes Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried should be required reading for any American, particularly for those too young to remember the Vietnam war and the Sixties in general. He became a father late in life, and in order to be a decent dad, he turned away from writing and turned towards his responsibilities as a father. Most of his income today is derived from a teaching career at the University of Texas at San Marcos, and from frequent appearances on the lecture circuit. Otherwise, he lives a comfortable life in suburban Austin, attending the basketball games of his now-teenage sons, helping with homework, comforting them when they are frightened.
But as he entered his seventh decade of life, O’Brien knew that chances are he wouldn’t live long enough to see his two sons Timmy and Tad grow into manhood. A lifelong two pack a day smoker, his health has been showing signs of wear and tear. Also, it troubled him that his sons never asked him a single question about his experiences in the war. He knew the time was fast approaching when his sons would have to make their way through life without him. And so he decided to write one last book for himself, to say everything he needed to say, but more importantly, for them, so they could hear their father’s voice after he was gone.
This documentary takes place over the four years it took for O’Brien to write his most recent book, Dad’s Maybe Book. During the course of filming, he struggled with writer’s block, often going into the kitchen in the wee hours of the morning to scrub the tiles with paper towels and disinfectant to try and get his mind out of the endless loop of frustration. He also suffers a serious bout of pneumonia that had him hallucinating and scaring the bejeezus out of not only his sons but his wife Meredith as well.
Matthews takes a cinema verité fly on the wall approach, rarely interviewing O’Brien or his family formally, but rather letting them say what’s on their mind. It’s an approach that works for directors like Errol Morris, but we end up being frustrated here because there’s no real context for anything; this movie may well have been titled Things That Happened While Tim O’Brien Wrote His Last Book. No context? No insight either; not really. We do hear about Tim’s thought’s on his mortality, but no real further exploration of them. Recently, Esquire magazine conducted an interview with him in which he goes much further into his motivations for writing the book and doing the movie, and there is far more insight into the soul of Tim O’Brien there then in this movie. But then again, I guess most people will agree that the book is always better than the movie.
REASONS TO SEE: O’Brien is a compelling subject.
REASONS TO AVOID: At times, feels little more than a home movie.
FAMILY VALUES: It has its fair share of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: O’Brien was 71 when filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10