How’s this for a job: Your assignment is to persuade people to join an organization that is definitely going to send them into a war zone, where there is every chance they will be killed. And you thought being a telemarketer was tough!
“An American Soldier” (now being called “The Recruiter”), an intriguing and complex documentary from Oscar-nominated director Edet Belzberg (“Children Underground”), follows the efforts of Sgt. Clay Usie, one of the Army’s top recruiters, as he does his job in the small town of Houma, La. This happens to be where Usie grew up, and that probably helps him connect with the local youth. Still, he’s good enough at what he does that he could probably be from the moon and still get kids to join the Army.
He seems to be sincere in his love for the armed forces and the United States. “I don’t have a ‘pitch,’” he says of his recruiting tactics. “I go out and look for patriots.” That kind of black-and-white thinking – all patriots would serve in the military; all who would serve in the military are patriots – may not hold up to scrutiny, but it does appeal to a lot of people, particularly those whose options are limited.
We meet four such individuals in “An American Soldier,” all 18 years old and just finishing high school. Matt idolizes Usie (who’s only a few years older) as a father figure, his own father having abandoned the family ages ago. Chris is a chubby kid who wants to join the Army seemingly for the health benefits. Lauren, a chain-smoking tomboy, hopes the Army can help her with college. Only Bobby, an all-American-looking football player with an attorney for a father, seems to be signing up out of something other than necessity. And sure enough, when they get to basic training, he’s the only who excels the most at it.
The film isn’t interested in statistics about the education or income level of Army volunteers. Belzberg wisely focuses on the human stories, and the multi-faceted issue is very compelling. Bobby’s father (a veteran himself) doesn’t want his son to join the Army during wartime for the very understandable reason that he could be killed. On the other hand, Lauren’s mother is practical, knows her daughter may not have a chance to go to college otherwise, and can see that the Army can provide a good life. Both points of view are valid, and Belzberg is sympathetic to everyone, letting them be themselves for good or bad.
The second half of the film follows the four new recruits in basic training … or three of them, anyway. We’re told that Chris went to training two weeks early, and we never see him again. The assumption is that it wasn’t feasible for Belzberg to send a camera crew with him, but if that’s the case, she should tell us. As it is, it’s very strange for him to simply disappear from the film.
When Lauren hates basic training and wants to leave, her mother encourages her to stick with it. “This is part of growin’ up,” she says. “It’s s***, but it’s life.” Joining the Army is, for many people, a way to grow up and learn self-discipline. Usie would recommend it for those reasons – heck, he’d recommend it for any reason. As he tells one potential recruit, “Tell us what your goals are, and we’ll tell you how the Army can help you reach them.” Overstating things a bit? Sure. But the Army needs soldiers, and a lot of soldiers need the Army.
B (1 hr., 26 min.; )