December 10, 2009

P.O.V. (Season 21, Fall Special): The Way We Get By

This is what "supporting the troops" looks like...

It was tragically ironic that I watched The Way We Get By on the same night as President Obama's speech outlining the troop surge in Afghanistan. Any other night the speech would have been mildly depressing, but that night, after watching the story of a group of seniors greeting more than 900,000 soldiers stepping back onto U.S. soil in Bangor, ME, well, it was soul-crushing. 

The Way We Get By, which is still available to view for free online at PBS through Sunday, is not a documentary about the war (we've had plenty of those, most forgettable), and it's not even about the soldiers. It is about finding meaning in the sunset years of life, and serving others without any condition or expectation of reward. In essence, it is about finding life in the face of death.

It must have been an incredibly emotional film for Aron Gaudet to make. His mother, Joan, is an active volunteer in the Maine Troop Greeters, a group of senior citizens who since 2003 have made a point of personally greeting every single U.S. soldier who returns home via the Bangor (ME) International Airport. The Way We Get By focuses on Joan, Bill Knight, and Jerry Mundy as they face a host of challenges in their golden years: the loss of a spouse, cancer (Bill), grandchildren going off to war (Joan), loneliness, financial distress, and multiple physical ailments. Although this sounds depressing, these three characters are steadfast in their optimism about the importance of their work in supporting the troops - even if they don't necessarily agree with the war.

In many ways, The Way We Get By reminded me of last year's terrific Young @ Heart. It is a more solemn film because these senior citizens are greeting troops instead of singing rock songs, but the point is that both documentaries offered encouraging profiles of people making the most of their retirement years, humbly looking to the future while gratefully acknowledging the past.

And while this film is not about the war, per se, it was about the war for me that night. I was floored by the image of the Joan, Bill, and Jerry greeting another 30,000 young men and women coming back from Afghanistan. And I thought about what I mean when I say that I don't support the war, but I support the troops. It's a nice, empty claim people make so they can sleep at night in a country that is heavily involved in combat thousands of miles away. But despite all of their own struggles, the troop greeters don't sleep at night - at least not when there is a new group of war-weary soldiers arriving on a 3:00 AM flight.

The Way We Get By aired as the Fall Special for the 2009 P.O.V. season. It is available to view online through Sunday, December 13.


  1. For some reason, I'm glad you of all people liked The Way We Get By, Daniel. Maybe it's because you're a documentary guy.

    One thing I liked about it was that it showed these people warts and all, it didn't deify them. It allowed them to be human and all the more remarkable for it.

  2. I keep meaning to watch this ever since I read your review, Craig. I need to try to get around to it before Sunday.

  3. Craig, that's exactly why I find the service they extend so admirable. They could easily sit at home and wallow in despair about life gone by, but they face every day with selfless compassion for others. Pretty inspiring.

    Matthew, I'll be interested in your thoughts since I know you had an issue with Young@Heart skirting around the issue of death. Not the case here.

  4. Matthew, I hope it works for you. I have to admit on its face this sounds like something that's too maudlin or manipulative, but it never felt like that. Yes it moved me, but none of these people are crying out "Hey, give me attention I'm old and lonely." They just are, but instead of quietly and politely dying, they invigorate themselves by doing something with the time they have left.

    Besides some of the obvious emotional moments, what really got me were the scenes of how moved these tough soldiers (who are really just kids themselves) were to have this odd group of well-wishers waiting for them. It was sweet and lovely.

  5. The airport greeting scenes were definitely among the least "scripted" and most emotional. It really hits home on multiple levels when you see these specific people (the greeters) standing in line to see this kids literally take their first steps back on American soil. I see troops in the airport all the time but for some reason I haven't been moved as much as I was seeing them arrive in this film.

  6. "It is about finding meaning in the sunset years of life."

    I am think here of THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) with Frederic March, which actually won the Best Picture Oscar that year over IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE (a bad decision!) Do you see this as a kind of contemporary version of that Daniel, in some small measure?

  7. I wish I could answer that with any credibility, Sam, but the March film is one of many classics that I have yet to see. From what I know about that film it focuses more on the soldiers returning home, which sounds to me more like last year's Stop-Loss (which you know I loved) than this documentary. But in any case it doesn't have to be about soldiers; it really is about aging in general more than war.


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