Documentary filmmakers and the elderly don't always mix well. As a corollary to the "profane grandma" phenomenon, documentarians face the overwhelming temptation to make senior citizens doddering and cute – to prod us to laugh at them. The nadir of this trend might be Young@Heart, last year's minor hit about a choir of seniors who perform modern pop hits for adoring crowds, where the director spent the film's entire running time treating people fully twice his age like toddlers. It's insulting.
So I was a bit concerned about The Way We Get By, a doc about a group of senior citizens in Bangor, Maine ("where Stephen King lives") who spend their time greeting and sending off the stream of American troops who parade through Bangor Airport on their way to and from Iraq and Afghanistan. The greeters are constantly on call, and often end up shuffling off to the airport in the middle of the night; they shake hands and give hugs and shout teary "thank you"s and "welcome home"s. I feared the worst: "They're old and their lives are empty, but look how adorable they are!" But The Way We Get By turns out to be a lovely, uncondescending look at three lives enriched by kindness.
It probably helps that one of the characters – Joan, a sweet, melancholy widow who finds troop-greeting an addiction – is the director's mother, though you wouldn't know it from watching the film. (Aside from a few off-microphone interview questions we hear shouted in the background, the filmmakers admirably keep out of the way.) Her days and nights at the airport give her something tangible to think about and love; the movie beautifully conveys their place in her life, beyond glibly insisting that troop-greeting is her obsession. Nor is it merely an exercise in self-satisfied patriotism: we learn that though Joan merrily shakes the hands of troops coming home, she slinks behind the scenes when the outgoing soldiers go through. It's not that she can't bear to see them go, but that she doesn't know what she could possibly say to them that would be meaningful.
The movie's capacity to create concise, multifaceted, affectionate portraits doesn't just extend to the director's immediate family. Consider Bill, a WWII vet whose life has completely come unglued after the death of his wife, his entire house buried under a foot-thick layer of garbage, dirty dishes, canned food, and cats. We sense – though the movie doesn't push this on us – that he greets the troops out of a desire to reconnect with the pride he himself felt in the military. The movie is remarkable in its refusal to pity him – instead, it gives us a sense of the way he was. We all have our ups and downs.
The Way We Get By is an Iraq War documentary, albeit in the loosest sense. Outwardly the movie is apolitical, because admiration of those in the service does not require a political point of view, but it is not a bland "support the troops" lecture either. You can draw your own conclusions. To my mind, the people who led America into Iraq, guns blazing, betrayed the people they sent there by not having a plan, a strategy, or a basic level of organizational competence. But that kernel of recklessness has spawned heroism, and goodness, and meaning. The movie's about that, I think. It's worth seeking out.