Review by Arts Editor Marc Leepson
Movies and documentaries about creative writers tend to focus on their personal rather than professional lives. Why? Because nothing could be more non-cinematic than scene after scene of a creative writer staring at a blank screen pondering his or her next sentence or tap-tapping away at a keyboard.
The good news about The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien is that filmmaker Aaron Matthews succeeds in illuminating the novelist at work, while also examining his personal life with rarely a dull moment in this nearly 90-minute doc. In it, Matthews bores in on O’Brien’s thoughts about life, death, war, killing, alcoholism, child abuse, severe illness, and decrepitude, along with his service as a draftee infantryman in the Vietnam War.
If those themes ring a bell, they should. They are at the heart of O’Brien’s latest book, the nonfiction Dad’s Maybe Book, which came out in 2019. In the film, Matthews’ cameras more or less invade the O’Brien household for more than a year, recording the writer at work and trying to work, as well as his interactions with his wife Meredith and their teen-aged sons.
The book and the documentary center on the fact that Tim and Meredith O’Brien became parents for the first time when he was in his late fifties—and his realization after the birth of his first son that he wouldn’t be around for most of boy’s life. Soon thereafter, O’Brien decided to write what he called a “book of love letters to his children,” words that, he said, “I have often wished my own father had given me—some scraps of paper signed ‘Love Dad.’ ”
Tim O’Brien was drafted into the Army after graduating from college in 1968 and served a harrowing 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty with the Americal Division. He came home, went to graduate school at Harvard, worked briefly as a journalist, and then wrote the stylized 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, his 1978 surreal novel, Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried, a group of linked short stories that came out in 1990.
O’Brien followed Things with three novels, the last of which, July, July, was published in 2002, a year after he and Meredith were married. The next year they decided to have a family.
Matthews met Tim O’Brien a few years after he became a father, and before he started working on what would be Dad’s Maybe Book. They became friendly and, after much coaxing, O’Brien agreed to let Matthews delve into his life. It took years, but Matthews—the movie’s director, producer, cinematographer, and editor—and his crew filmed O’Brien day and night working at his computer. They also filmed him helping with his sons’ homework and cheering them at their basketball games; shooting hoops with boys in their driveway; and doing talks before audiences large and small. They catch him in the act of smoking cigarettes (he inhales two packs a day), drinking endless cups of coffee, and practicing and performing card tricks and other feats of magic as he has since high school.
Meredith O’Brien and their sons are the supporting cast—with brief appearances from Tim’s two siblings—but the documentary lasers in on the author talking to himself, to the camera, and to others (there are no interviews or a narrator).
Some of what Matthews shows, such as O’Brien talking about the horrors he experienced in combat and being stricken by a vicious bout of pneumonia, make for uneasy, uncomfortable viewing.
But in its entirety, The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien shines a light on what makes Tim O’Brien tick and how and why he has created a remarkable body of literary work.
The documentary’s website is timobrienfilm.com
–March 22, 2021