The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 1, 2010

Lisa Brown: Documentary a compelling look at human worth

By Lisa Brown
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Do you ever sense, as the lights dim and the crowd hushes, that a movie is going to be special?

I always have that experience when I attend True/False, an annual documentary film festival in Columbia, Mo. I usually see anywhere from 10 to 12 movies in a three-day period. Some of them are forgettable, but occasionally I see one that stays with me.

“The Way We Get By,”which I saw in 2009 and which aired later that year on PBS’s “POV,”is such a film. I saw it at a Secret Screening Ñ meaning that attendees had a vague idea of what the documentary was about but no knowledge of the title or film makers.

The festival guide simply read: “The challenges of aging and patriotism mix in this sensitive portrait of three senior citizens, who have met every arriving and departing flight since the beginning of the Iraq War.”

Now, in a town with liberal tendencies such as Columbia, where peace protests are common, a movie about patriots could potentially result in a contentious Q-and-A with the director. Not so with “The Way We Get By.”

By the time the closing credits rolled, the audience had been won over. No matter how you feel about the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, you will find the stories of these three individuals riveting.

Bill, Joan and Jerry are members of the Maine Troop Greeters, a group of volunteers who welcome and see off all U.S. soldiers at the Bangor International Airport.

The airport is a busy place, as it is the main entry and exit point for U.S. troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan. Sometimes there are seven or eight flights a day, and the Greeters meet all of them, day or night.   

The volunteers meet and send off the soldiers with hugs, handshakes and greetings of “Welcome home, heroes” and “We appreciate you.” They provide them with cookies and candy. They offer them cell phones to call loved ones.

The soldiers’ wary expressions soon give way to smiles and laughter. The airport scenes are both touching and sobering. Throughout the film, the Greeters mark grim milestones: 300,000 soldiers, then 500,000. By the film’s end, they’ve met close to 900,000.

But “The Way We Get By” is about so much more than the Maine Troop Greeters. While profiling the volunteer work of Bill, Joan and Jerry, the film delves into their private lives. With an intimacy that is sometimes painful, we witness their personal dramas.

The knowledge that soldiers, and soon her grandchildren, are going into war zones weighs heavily on Joan, who also happens to be the director’s mother.

“How can you be safe? It’s not like being home,” she asks, her face betraying her anxiety before she bursts into tears.

Jerry’s jovial facade cracks when he has to put down his faithful dog.

“The vet said it was time,” he says, unable to look at the camera. “But he sure was a good puppy. And I’m very lucky to have had him for 16 years.”   

Bill’s loneliness is palpable, perhaps heightened by his fight with prostate cancer.

“My life don’t mean a hell of a lot to me,” he says, his blue eyes bright with tears. When the interviewer asks him why, he answers, “Well, I have nothing to live for other than what I do for other people. I’ve outlived my usefulness, as far as individually. I think, you know, helping other people puts a little meaning back in my life. At least I hope that’s what it’s doing.”   

Ultimately, the point that “The Way We Get By” makes is that, regardless of their age, people have worth. In a country that often ignores or underestimates its older citizens, they can make a difference.

The film’s tagline says it all: “Sometimes all it takes is a handshake to change a life.” But whose life is being changed? More than the soldiers’ lives are changed, as become evident in the film.

“It’s not something I have to do. It’s something I want to do,” Jerry says of his role as a Greeter. “If I can make one of them feel a little more comfortable on their way out, and show our appreciation on their way back, if you can make a soldier smile before he goes over, that’s all that’s needed.”   

I’ve seen this documentary four times now. Each time I find something new to love about it. Check it out for yourself at the Joplin Public Library.

Lisa E. Brown is the Administrative Assistant at the Joplin Public Library.