Title: How to Fold a Flag
Directors: Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein
Home can be defined many ways. Is it your ancestral home? The place you were actually born? The place you spent most of your childhood? The place you left as a teenager, if your parents still live there? Or is merely the place you currently live, even if you move every 18 months or so? An ex-soldier in How to Fold a Flag, the gripping new documentary from co-directors Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, describes “home” in simple and eloquent fashion as merely a place of sound mind — in essence, a place of mooring which allows for a deeper connection with your friends and family. So when he says that, in the aftermath of multiple deployments to Iraq, he lost his sense of home, it’s a heartrendingly blunt and tragic assessment of the long, cold shadow of consequences that war casts, and how, no matter when we actually bring the last of our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, we’ll still be paying a heavy price for these incursions for several generations to come.
Six years after the release of the searing Gunner Palace — one of the first wave of the embed war docs, and additionally notable for its MPAA ratings appeal victory, which lowered its classification to PG-13 despite the presence of more than three dozen variations of the F-word — filmmakers Tucker and Epperlein turn their focus toward home with this movie, tracking some of the same Gunner soldiers back in their hometowns, as they each in their own way struggle to define their wartime experience and figure out to what degree they’re able to share with those around them, in a country largely isolated from if not indifferent to their service.
Filmed over the course of 15 months from 2008 to 2009, “How to Fold a Flag” centers chiefly on four young men, a pair of which were 17 upon their initial enrollment. Colorado’s quirky Stuart Wilf, whose mother describes him as sort of like Forrest Gump, quits his convenience store job and enjoys playing music, as his younger brother prepares to ship off to war. In small town North Carolina, Javorn Drummond works at a hog-processing plant at night while trying to obtain his college degree via a dwindling GI Bill. In Texas, PTSD-riddled Michael Goss, with three kids to support and a questionable less-than-honorable discharge sullying his record and muddying his health care situation, attempts to exorcise his demons as a cage fighter. In upstate New York, meanwhile, former social studies teacher Jon Powers decides to make a run for U.S. Congress, challenging a gaggle of well-funded Democrats and Republican nominee Chris Lee (who would go on to fame as “the Craigslist Congressman“).
The circumstances and support networks of these men are fairly different, but they each bear an undeniable mark from their service. Goss is, on the surface, the most explictly troubled; when he talks about being haunted by the spirits of “everybody that didn’t come back with us,” and curtly asserts that tattoos he has and a T-shirt listing all of his wounded comrades is not a tribute but instead a reminder “for those who’ve already forgotten,” it highlights with devastating poignancy the latent anger and separation he feels, but has understandable trouble communicating. The other men, though, also have some issues with social anxiety, and/or misreading the cues or intentions of those around them. In its final act, the film pivots somewhat and spends some time with the family of Ben Colgan, the first gunner lost in the aforementioned soldiers’ platoon.
Presented by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, who lent his name to the production to help give it a boost in profile, “How to Fold a Flag” would fail to crack only the most hardened and cynical heart as a piece of empathetic, real-life human drama. And yet it’s not merely some lazily strung together clip-fest of angsty soul-baring. Much to contrary, the film is often notable as much for what isn’t said as for what is, even though Tucker and Epperlein smartly parcel out various revelations to give a sense of definition and relief to the characterizations of their true-life subjects. Additionally, there’s honest skillcraft here. The movie is artfully composed; shot selections for the interviews actually mean something, as when Javorn shares VHS footage from an old high school football game. Other directorial choices are even more chilling and emotionally effective, as when Tucker and Epperlein lay down Army vehicle radio chatter and mixed present-day interview footage under Goss’ reminiscence of a terrible Baghdad shootout.
An at times agonizing but very necessarily full-bodied portrait of the true cost of war, How to Fold a Flag shines a light on the human side of armed conflict. One of the finer documentaries of the year so far, it’s well worth checking out — both for those with a familial connection to the wars abroad, and for those without.
Note: In addition to playing in theaters, the movie is also available across digital and VOD platforms this week, just in time for Memorial Day, with a DVD release planned for later in the summer.
Written by: Brent Simon