***1/2 out of ****
Whether it is because of passion, the need to pay bills or perhaps a bit of both, every writer in every medium needs to practice their craft with regularity if they wish to succeed. Writing isn't like riding a bike. You can't go for weeks, months or years at a time without doing it and expect to instantly get back into the groove. Golfers of all talent levels understand this situation all too well.
In the case of Tim O'Brien, he didn't write a word for close to two decades, but his was not a case of writer's block – although he would also battle that cruel syndrome with regularity. In 2004 at the age of 58, O'Brien became a father for the first time and chose to put writing aside to raise two boys with his wife Meredith.
Thanks to a handful of acclaimed best-selling novels and the occasional speaking engagement, O'Brien had the rare option few writers enjoy – he didn't have to work. This is as noble a reason as any imaginable as properly raising children should be every parent's primary concern.
For those unfamiliar with O'Brien, four of his books – "If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home" (1973), "Going After Cacciato" (1978), "The Things They Carried" (1980), and "In the Lake of the Woods" (1994) – are considered by many in the know not just as some of the best books about the Vietnam War ever written but examples of some of the best American Literature of the late 20th century.
He's been rightfully compared to Ernest Hemingway as each man employs a basic, yet lyrical style, but where Hemingway often romanticized war, O'Brien is one of its most vehement opponents.
Long-time documentarian Aaron Matthews spent the better part of four years chronicling O'Brien's journey into assembling what the writer has declared to be his last book. Breaking from his past works of fiction, revisionist history, and non-fiction, "Daddy's Maybe Book" is instead comprised of essays, anecdotes and short stories specifically earmarked for his sons Timmy and Tad (now 16 and 15 years old respectively.)
Had O'Brien initially had his way, there would have been no Timmy or Tad. He didn't want to be a father and only acquiesced when Meredith said she would leave him if they didn't have children.
Twenty years O'Brien's junior, Meredith was fully into the second half of her 30s before having Timmy and Tad, and in addition to drawing such a drastic line in the sand with her ultimatum, it could have been all for naught. The couples' recollection of this period is brimming with the kind of authentic emotion rarely seen in other similar "fly-on-the-wall" documentaries.
A late night/early morning encounter between O'Brien and Timmy is equally if not more heartwarming and heartbreaking. After recognizing many of his classmates had grandfathers younger than his dad, Timmy came to the realization that O'Brien might not live longer than his own high school graduation. O'Brien's chain smoking, bad diet and lack of exercise only legitimized and sustained the young boy's concerns. For the record, O'Brien is still among the living.
Keenly aware of O'Brien's established audience, Matthews regularly includes snippets of the writer's recollections of the Vietnam War which also includes his readings of passages from those four incredible books over top of still photos, original and stock footage. The searing impact of these images in juxtaposition of such eloquent, yet spare collections of words cannot be overstated.
Clocking in at an economical 84 minutes, "The War and Peace of Tim O'Brien" addresses four very distinct times of its subject's life (upbringing, war time, family man, and career) without ever feeling skimpy, choppy, rushed, incomplete or overtly political in any way. There's also a tiny bit of filler – going into Meredith's workout routine and a throwaway interview with Dan Rather could have been cut – but these portions are brief and fleeting.
It might be beyond obvious to point this out, but experiencing this film should be required viewing for all writers, regardless of any particular discipline or style. Anyone who regularly commits pen to paper (or keystrokes on a computer file) can learn a great deal from watching O'Brien grapple with the putting-together of what hopefully won't be his last book is nothing less than awe-inspiring. You will not only become a more-informed writer, you will almost certainly become a better parent and human being.
"The War and Peace of Tim O'Brien" is now available on iTunes/Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play and cable VOD.
(NR) (Gravitas Ventures)
Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has written for over 30 local and national film industry media outlets and is based in the Atlanta Top 10 media marketplace. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a regular contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on floridamanradio.com. Over the last 25 years, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles and is one of the scant few conservative U.S. movie critics. Read Michael Clark's Reports — More Here.
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