On Veterans Day, the documentary world has much to offer. From the gripping and incisive embeds of Sebastian Junger (Restrepo, Korengal), to an epic profile of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara (Errol Morris’s The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara), the all-encompassing histories of Ken Burns (The Civil War, The War) and that magnificent cri de coeur about the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. If you include Holocaust and other genocide documentaries, the list goes on and on.
And that’s a good thing. Doc filmmakers have had war covered from every angle to help us understand the horrors and realities of war. This Saturday, there’s another one showing at DOC NYC, In Country, about guys who reenact the Vietnam War in Oregon. It’s a strong film that gets at the male psychology around war, and another one you should check out.
But what are most Americans going to watch on screens to commemorate Veterans Day? I’d guess not much. Or maybe a Fox News special. Which is why I want to direct your finger on the remote to a reality show that’s airing on A&E at 10 PM. Yes, I’m suggesting you go to the channel where there’s currently heavy promotion for Growing Up Gotti (“Oh my Gotti, they’re back!”). Reality TV is often a gutter of dreck, but there’s some good stuff in there too. I’ve gone on the record about this before. Heck, I even went to the mat for The Hills.
The show I’d now recommend is about an organization called Paws and Stripes, which pairs veterans who suffer from PTSD with shelter dogs trained as service animals. When you strip it down, the show hits all the right notes: sympathetic characters (veterans), cute animals and a contest format (the veteran has to pick the dog that’s right for him).
But don’t get cynical on me yet.
The show becomes more than the sum of its parts when you consider what’s at stake. This isn’t about some airhead who wants to be famous. It’s about damaged men who fought for our country and want to heal. The show takes an especially heady turn when we start to see the curative effects that a relationship between man and animal has on these veterans.
Tuesday night’s series premiere episode is apolitical. It’s about men who endure great trauma and the families who love them. The producers re-create the effects of war with engaging sound design, quick editing and light exposure. The representation of a veteran’s night terrors is particularly gripping, not unlike a horror movie.
You may well recognize a lot of the filmmaking techniques that serve to tell the story here. Dogs of War isn’t remaking the wheel. But it is what’s right about reality television. And the depth of the connection between dog and vet is something to behold.