Overview: A few years ago, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Sebastian Junger (Academy Award nominated Restrepo) planned a walk from Washington, D.C. to New York City along Amtrak railroad lines with his close friend, acclaimed war reporter Tim Hetherington. After Hetherington was killed covering the Libyan civil war in 2011, (reported in the HBO documentary WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE? THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TIM HETHERINGTON, by Junger) Junger decided to take the same trip, joined instead by a Spanish photographer who was at Hetherington’s side when he died and two combat vets they’d known in Afghanistan.
Chronicling their journey, the moving documentary THE LAST PATROL debuted MONDAY, NOVEMBER 10 at 9:000pm ET. Junger was accompanied by combat veterans Brendan O’Byrne (previously seen in Restrepo) and Dave Roels, as well as acclaimed Spanish photojournalist Guillermo Cervera. Naming their journey The Last Patrol, they walked from D.C. to Philadelphia and then turned west, away from the cluttered Northeast Corridor, and headed for the Allegheny Mountains and Pittsburgh.
After extensive experience in combat and the loss of good friends, all four men declared they never wanted to go to war again. The goal was to get to know America again after a decade of war, and discuss why combat is so incredibly hard to give up. The Last Patrol recreated the hardship, brotherhood and closeness of combat, without getting fired upon – except once in Pennsylvania.
THE LAST PATROL was directed by Sebastian Junger; producers, Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested; editor, Michael Levine; cinematographer, Rudy Valdez. For HBO: supervising producer, Sara Bernstein; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.
Expectations: I don’t want to be a total prick here but, I’m not sure I get it. I don’t understand why veterans wouldn’t want to come back stateside and settle back into civilian society? I am not sure I’m supposed to get it because I have never served any military duty so how would I know. I mean, I understand that a camaraderie exists between soldiers looking out for each other’s lives; I understand you get used to the regimented duties, the lingo, the equipment; I understand the bonding, the adrenaline and the focus that are all quite strong. Surely, though there are advantages to coming home. How about the loves and family left behind? How about reliving the choices and freedoms that were fought for? How about the adrenaline and adventure of reshaping your life with a new career and purpose? No, it can’t be easy, but isn’t it worth striving for?
So, clearly my expectation is to try to understand the stress of it a little better. I’ll never 100% understand, but I hope Sebastian Junger and company can let us in on their hardship as they assumedly assimilate back into civilian life. Here is a clip.
Gut Reaction: Well, I still don’t get it totally, but THE LAST PATROL is a strong documentary anyway. It wasn’t exactly what I expected. As a whole there really wasn’t that much war stories in the 88 minute film and no solid declaration for why they miss it. One of them (I forget who said what I’m afraid) mentioned he missed the outdoor campfire chats. Well, wasn’t this film the proof that you can do that stateside as well? What this film is really about I found wasn’t about the hard adjustments needed to let wartime go. It is more a rite of passage journey to find and evaluate their inner selves and to find America along the way. That makes this a nice story to tell.
Really, if you think about it, this film could have been about any group of anti-social or, at least, socially uncomfortable souls. Expect for being functionally efficient outdoor survivalists the veterans could have been replaced by a few recently incarcerated guys, a homeless man and a man abused in his youth and have them take the same journey. It is the process they go through with each step, the late night talks and open confessions that matter. It is accentuated by the behind-the-scenes look at America that enriches the experience of both living it and watching its documentation.
The stories these men tell about themselves are fascinating to listen to and, of course, these veterans have additional embellishments to their lives that are unique to those who serve. However, we all have hurdles in life. Two comments made rang true in that regard. Someone mentioned that those with rough, stressed lives likely had them before the enlisted; and the other is the one stating that the definition of life is struggle or something to that effect. So, you can clearly see that the stresses felt and the horrors seen or committed by these servicemen on top of life’s issues can surely weigh one down. Did this ‘last patrol’ help these individuals make sense of it? In the end we care for these men and only hope that some clarity did take hold.
Bonus: This clip helps give us clarity about that final notion. And then there is also an HBO interview we can include.
HBO: How long did the last patrol take in totality?
Sebastian Junger (pictured): We did it off and on over the course of a year. We wanted to walk in each season, so we spread it out. We walked about 350 miles at about 3 miles per hour, so that’s roughly 100-plus hours of walking.
HBO: What was the most difficult thing about it?
SJ: We were carrying a lot of weight and were completely self-supported. We didn’t have a production team bringing us food; we carried everything. We were sleeping outside. In the winter, it was 15 degrees at night. Our bodies just got beat up. We didn’t have tents because the nylon attracts attention and we were breaking the law. We felt a little bit like we were behind enemy lines and had to keep a low profile.
HBO: Were there emotional challenges?
SJ: There wasn’t any sort of emotional issues from the trip itself, but we all were carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Two of us were in marriages that were falling apart and two of us had just lost our fathers. All of us had some sort of PTSD. We were walking wounded, and it was actually good because the experience helped us work through some of it.
HBO: It seems like an intense, bonding experience.
SJ: There’s this enormous closeness in war. It’s closeness with other men, which is an uncomplicated closeness. Being in a male group can be very, very relaxing because you don’t have to deal with anyone else’s emotions. The last patrol gave us an experience of male closeness without getting shot at except for once in Pennsylvania. I think it got us to acknowledge how changed we were by combat. Combat does a lot of complicated things to people, but some of it is quite good.
HBO: How did combat change you?
SJ: It sounds like a cliché, but you understand that you really don’t have much meaning in the universe, and you’re alive by the most random chances. If you really take both those things in, you are present in the world in this moment. It’s a pretty radical understanding.
HBO: Why did you include church visits in the film?
SJ: I’m a total atheist. I had never been to church and I was curious about it, so we went to church in a poor African-American community and in a wealthy white community. The poor folks were definitely having way more fun. The wealthy church looked like a funeral for someone no one liked very much. It was subdued, really boring and disconnected — no emotions. The African American church was filled with expression.
HBO: You ask, “What’s the best thing about America?” What answer surprised you?
SJ: I was amazed that it was in the poor communities that people said “freedom.” The wealthy communities didn’t remember to say that because, I think, they take it for granted.
HBO: What do you believe is the best thing about America?
SJ: It’s something connected to the idea that this is one of the politically freest countries in the world. The fact that you can stand on a street corner in New York City and yell criticisms of the president without getting arrested is amazing. But I should say, there is an awful lot of economic injustice that cancels out those freedoms for a lot of people. And that should be a source of deep shame for all of us — that in a country this wealthy, enlightened and politically free, we allow a situation where many people are effectively imprisoned in a cycle of poverty with the income gap widening and widening.
HBO: What do you hope veterans and civilians take away from this film?
SJ: I’d love to have veterans see this film as an example of how to create the closeness of combat, but back home. I’d love civilians to be able to see just how weird this country is; how varied, racially divided, rich, poor and beautiful. It’s a very funky country.
I’d love to have civilians also just clock the emotional challenges of not just being a vet, but in some ways, of being a man in society. It’s a little confusing. I’m sure it’s confusing being a woman too but I think the conversation about men — “What’s it mean to be a man?” — is one that’s discouraged. I got a lot of shit from friends who said, “It’s politically awkward to do that.” I was like, “I think it feels pretty important.” We’re not trying to dictate what it means to be a man; we’re trying to understand what people mean by the word.
I think it would be wonderful if women sort of watched this film and thought, “Wow, I’m sort of a fly on the wall. This is how men really are when women aren’t around — the best and worst of them.” Personally, I would absolutely love to watch a film that followed four women walking 350 miles along the railroad lines and hear what they talked about.
HBO: Is anything that we can do for soldiers coming back home?
SJ: There’s nothing simple or obvious. Male soldiers spend 15 months with a group of guys where no one really talks about their feelings very much. They come back to their home, and all of a sudden they’re in this emotional world. Neither is better or worse, but it’s a real transition to ease back into the more emotion-based world of your wife, family and children. (If you look at Western society, or just post-industrial society around the world, the rates of suicide, depression, insomnia, anxiety, loneliness and child abuse are at the highest levels ever in human history. That’s what soldiers are coming home to — of course they have trouble reintegrating. If we could save the soldiers, we’d be saving ourselves. They’re just the canary in the coal mine.
In Conclusion: It is a moving and well done documentary. I think there could be plenty more said about the issue, but it gives a strong example of the thought process returning veterans face. We should all make their acclimation back into society as smooth a transition as possible. They deserve that so, let them walk along the fucking Amtrack rails if they want to for crying out loud.
It is still appearing on HBO on 11.13 at 9:15am & 4:00pm; 11.16 at 1:00pm; 110.18 at 3:00pm and 11.22 at 8:15am. It is also on HBO2 on 11.19 at 8:15am & 8:30pm; 11.25 at 12:30am and 11.30 at 8:15am. It can also be found on HBOGo along with a special Veterans Day Collection of movies and documentaries.
Next Week: The unique artistic style of Banksy takes over on Monday, 11.17.