Title: Until They Are Home
Directors: Steven Barber and Matthew Hausle
Narrated in stentorian tones by Kelsey Grammer, documentary “Until They Are Home” shines a light on the extraordinary dedication of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a military subset that works to locate and identify the bodies of American service members spanning various conflicts — and specifically their search for the missing remains of U.S. Marines killed in the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943 during World War II. Earnest and well-meaning but a bit sludgy and unfocused, this flag-wrapped documentary offering should find a home on PBS or elsewhere as part of future Memorial Day small screen programming.
The attack on the Japanese stronghold of Tarawa — an island parcel of land one-third the size of New York City’s Central Park, and the first major amphibious assault of the Pacific Theater — was designed to wrest control of an important 4,000-foot airfield landing strip that could then be used as a forward base for future operations. Combined, six thousand U.S. Marines and well dug-in Japanese soldiers lost their lives in the heated, three-day battle. American service members felled on the beach were hurriedly buried in mass trench graves. Decades later, the aforementioned Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, which works on the more than 89,000 unaccounted for United States service member deaths, and closes about 100 cases per year, travels to the now-developed Tarawa to try to find human remains and bring closure to American families.
Part of the unresolved tension in “Until They Are Home” seems to result from its uncertainty of focus, in whether to tell the story of the assault of Tarawa more broadly, as funneled through the specific memories of a small band of Marines, or indeed just the charter mission of the JPAC team in general. Steven Barber, who takes the main directing credit, ping-pongs back and forth between different narrative angles, and picks a weird point of entry for his story to boot, resulting in a choppy narrative that struggles to hold viewers’ interest in a manner that it shouldn’t necessarily have to. “Until They Are Home” tells a solemn story, but just not very well.
NOTE: The Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7 plays host to the Los Angeles engagement of “Until They Are Home.” For more information on the movie, visit www.UntilTheyAreHome.com.
Written by: Brent Simon