Aaron Matthews’ “The Conflict and Peace of Tim O’Brien,” a documentary in regards to the writer of acclaimed books in regards to the Vietnam Conflict, has a title that’s evocative and interesting, however not terribly correct. “The Late-Life Fatherhood, Gnarly Author’s Block and Tragic Nicotine Habit of Tim O’Brien” could be extra cumbersome, admittedly, but it will seize extra of what’s truly on display in Matthews’ well-intentioned however solely partly satisfying movie.
O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam Conflict in 1969 and later attended graduate faculty at Harvard and labored on the Washington Put up. Vietnam has dominated the eleven books he has revealed since 1973, together with the 2 novels which have obtained essentially the most effusive reward: Going After Cacciato (1978) and The Issues They Carried (1990), which the Library of Congress named one of many 65 most influential books in U.S. historical past.
Given these details, Matthews’ movie might need given us an actual Conflict and Peace, chronicling how reluctant warrior O’Brien went to Vietnam, witnessed and was remodeled by the conflict, then discovered a vocation and constructed a profession as a author throughout peacetime. However this isn’t that kind of movie. Documentaries about writers normally take an method both of biography, telling the life story and correlating that with the work, or portraiture, exhibiting us the persona who created the work (which we’re normally assumed to know). Matthews’ movie is the latter selection; it escorts us into the present stage of O’Brien’s life, solely hardly ever referring again to the trials of Vietnam or the achievements of literary fame.
Although we be taught virtually nothing about his experiences main as much as the flip of the millennium, O’Brien’s life appears to have undergone sure important modifications round that point. For one, he started a instructing profession at Texas State College-San Marcos. Extra crucially, he turned a father in his late 50s, siring two sons, Timmy and Tad, together with his associate Meredith, who refused to proceed their relationship if he wouldn’t decide to fatherhood.
Across the similar time, it appears O’Brien started to expertise a critical author’s block. In interviews, he has advised a connection between that occasion and the onset of fatherhood, as if the newer dedication in some way undercut the sooner one. However is that an correct description of what occurred, or an evasion, an excuse?
Matthews’ movie doesn’t probe such questions as a result of it eschews interviews, together with any with O’Brien. It adopts the trendy method of observing its topic verite-style, giving us glimpses into his life in the course of the latter a part of the final decade. We see plenty of Tim and his household at their suburban residence in Austin, Texas, the place consideration is given to their home routines and his rituals in making an attempt to write down, in addition to the sports activities endeavors of teenaged Timmy and Tad; we additionally observe Tim on his excursions out into the world, normally for talking engagements. Then there’s his time within the hospital with pneumonia (he’s had 4 current circumstances), which in some way doesn’t persuade him to surrender his two-pack-a-day cigarette behavior.
On display, O’Brien, now 74, comes throughout as considerate, clever, principled, often crotchety and missing a sure diploma self-awareness. Did he permit Matthews to movie him hoping to see one thing about himself on movie that eluded him in life?
Vietnam solely often intrudes right here. Probably the most important occasion—and for me, the movie’s most attention-grabbing scene—comes when O’Brien talks with a bunch of Vietnam veterans. It’s a casual gathering fairly than a speech. Requested by one vet what he thought when President Carter allowed People who’d moved to Canada to keep away from the draft to return residence, O’Brien is aware of he’s being requested for a denunciation and he doesn’t take the bait. He says he was virtually one of many draft dodgers himself (the topic of a rare chapter in The Issues They Carried) and this leads right into a dialogue that makes it clear how a lot he differs from many of those Vietnam vets.
They’re nonetheless smarting that they obtained reproachful stares fairly than parades and celebrations once they returned residence. That is historical historical past now, the resentments over not being appreciated once they thought they have been serving their nation, and O’Brien is clearly sick of their “Vietnam victimization.” However he was totally different from them to start with. He thought the conflict was fallacious earlier than he went and have become much more satisfied of that whereas there. A lot of his writing comes from the dearth of “rectitude” he sees in the entire enterprise, a revulsion conveying his conviction that “America betrayed itself” even because it begs a vital query: Would O’Brien have been higher off becoming a member of the antiwar motion, going to jail or Canada fairly than taking part in a colossal crime?
One other query: Was it whole coincidence that O’Brien’s deviation from writing into fatherhood roughly coincided with America’s invasion of Iraq, one other, very totally different occasion the place lethal power and misguided management vanquished morality? It virtually appears that the general public’s acquiescence in—and even jingoistic enthusiasm for—the latter tragic misadventure mirrored an America crucially modified for the reason that nice public furor over Vietnam, leaving O’Brien disadvantaged of an older ethical framework. Now he makes speeches decrying the horrors of conflict, and afterwards younger males come inform him he’s impressed them to affix the navy.
Simply as morality looms over the movie, so does mortality. O’Brien’s expertise in Vietnam was conditioned by the up-close deaths of associates and enemies and the fixed menace of his personal. Now he’s beneath menace once more, and solely partly attributable to age. His sons know he’s a lot older than their associates’ dad and mom and fear out loud that he might die earlier than they develop up. However age is one thing he can’t do something about; that’s not true of smoking two packs a day.