There is a moment early in “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” in which the titular author mailgns being known as a “war writer.” He doesn’t want to be remembered only for the moment in his life he most despises – the Vietnam War, the focus of his many books, including “The Things They Carried” and National Book Award winner “Going After Cacciato.” Aaron Matthews’ new documentary focuses far more on the writer than the war, as he attempts to craft his final book after nearly two decades away from his writing desk.
The father of two teenage boys, an underlying theme of “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” is that time is running out – and there are still words to be written and questions to be answered. There are still far too many wars being fought. In a particularly telling home video captured by his wife Meredith, the author is cleaning the kitchen floor at three o’clock in the morning – the writing is going badly, and he is thinking out loud about the idea that combat should not even be sanitized by the word “war,” but instead what it is: “killing people.”
“The Things They Carried” is a modern classic, selling six million copies and named by the Library of Congress as one of the most influential books in American history. Too often with biographies of the men and women who create classics, we get stodgy facts and speculation about their processes, their inspirations, their lives. Matthews gives us a modern telling of a writer’s life – the struggle, the detail and the questions that fuel a writer to pick up a pen again after 20 years.
“It’s never about what happened, but about what could’ve happened,” O’Brien says of fiction writing. Matthews presents us with what’s happening in the present: a blend of home life, the lecture circuit and the clacking keys in an office. He and O’Brien paint the portrait of a life, and a growing awareness of mortality – and morality.
It is quickly clear why Matthews thought he would make a compelling and worthy documentary subject. He wants to be remembered as “a preacher for peace,” smoking cigarettes and wearing college caps and t-shirts with photos or phrases like “Make Coffee Not War.”
“Witnessing an artist and father at home, I saw that he is a dogged truth teller, an inveterate scab picker, an eloquent confessor,” Matthews said. “I saw how his rigorous soul searching prodded me to examine my own self. And I saw how O’Brien could shed light on the wars we all fight.” O’Brien shows this in his work with veterans, writing students, his sons and wife. But he is especially honest about his own inner war, from combat to creating. He admits feeling misunderstood as an author – his writing was always meant to deter war, not to advocate for it.
My dad is around O’Brien’s age; he spent more than 40 years as a reporter – a retired “newspaperman,” he calls himself, a staunch opponent of the word “journalist.” He also had children later in life, and I try to imagine myself in the shoes of Tad and Timmy O’Brien – if a camera came into my house to observe my dad and his life in his natural habitat, I would feel proud. Not just of what my dad wrote, but who he is. And as much as O’Brien’s latest book “Dad’s Maybe Book” is a letter to his sons, so too is this film.
“The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien” is available on VOD beginning March 2.