In 2008, Javorn Drummond, a former specialist in the Army's 2/3 Field Artillery Unit and a subject in the 2004 Iraq war documentary Gunner Palace, sent an e-mail update to the film's co-director, Michael Tucker. "Come see how I live," it said. Drummond was out of the Army and back in Fayetteville, N.C., struggling to balance college work with long, brutal hours at a hog processing plant in nearby Smithfield.
"I was shocked," says Tucker of visiting the combat veteran's home, which isn't far from the fields where his grandmother once picked cotton. "He had risked his life for his country, and in the world he was coming back to, nothing had changed." Like several other of Palace's subjects, Drummond had returned from the war to find that the civilian world didn't really care what he had seen or done or risked: It had largely forgotten about him.
And yet, in the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, a lot of flag-waving was going on. Both candidates crafted plenty of talking points around "patriotism" and "heroism" and "supporting our troops," but all that rhetoric had little (if anything) to do with the real experience of soldiers coming home from Iraq. This is the basis for Tucker's fourth documentary about the war, How to Fold a Flag.
Co-directed with Petra Epperlein, the film follows four veterans through their wildly divergent civilian lives post-combat: Drummond, who joined the Army at 17, has to contend with his mother's terminal cancer and navigate the exacting realities of the adult world with no family to support him; Michael Goss sublimates his rage and guilt by becoming a cage fighter; metalhead Stuart Wilf works in a Circle K ("I deal with dickheads all day"); and idealistic Jon Powers runs for Congress in New York, where his millionaire opponents do everything they can to smear his record.
Some of these guys are angry. Some are traumatized. Some are just trying to move on. It's a much more intricate, powerful portrait of the American soldier than one gets from pandering politicians or from Hollywood, which too often flattens Iraq vets into forever-damaged, two-dimensional basket cases.
Despite the critical success of fictional films like 2009's The Hurt Locker—which beat out Avatar for this year's best picture Oscar—Tucker takes issue with what he feels has traditionally been a cynical manipulation by the mainstream media of life during wartime. "To see Kathryn Bigelow up there with her Oscar, you'd think it was Leni Riefenstahl!" says Tucker, who has been traveling to Iraq since 2003. "The idea that men of war can do nothing but make war is such a cartoonish, nonsense way of looking at the world."
Because the military is often rendered in such extreme ways, one of the most important philosophical questions in Tucker's documentary work is how the experience of this generation of soldiers in particular is represented. "The traditional veterans' narrative is a little self-pitying," he says, "as in 'if you have this experience [of going to war], then you have to be messed up by it, or you automatically have license to behave a certain way.' That's very detached from reality."
And that reality—in all of its strange, absurd, mostly heartbreaking colors—is what How to Fold a Flag so vividly portrays.