Documentary filmmaker Aron Gaudet’s first feature, “The Way We Get By” is a small, poignant film that is stunning in its heartbreaking simplicity. It is a film about basic human kindness and small acts that speak great depths, but also about the tragedy of our existence and the fragility of life.
In Bangor, Maine, three senior citizen, including two veterans of the armed forces and the wife of a late veteran, voluntarily place themselves on call 24/7 to shake hands with all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who pass through their airport. Though all three are over 70 years old, they have personally thanked over 900,000 troops since 2003.
Gaudet’s film is very simply composed. He follows his three subjects — Joan Gaudet, William Knight and Gerald Mundy — around airport terminals with appropriate distance. Always holding back and observing the action rather than infiltrating it, he films troops as they telephone their parents and loved ones.
Interspersed between these segments are solemn reflections by the three citizens of their own lives and the pains of their mortality. Gaudet follows them around their homes as they try to find happiness while filled with the knowledge that their own deaths are perhaps too close for comfort.
He provides us with vignettes of them doing things as mundane as shaving, playing with their dogs and donning their own uniforms for a Bangor parade, although the director’s visual modesty makes each of these events seem important and powerful.
The three speak candidly and frankly, telling wonderful stories of their lives and unexpectedly slipping into small and poetic ruminations on the fragile tension between life and death.
“The Way We Get By” is a film cautiously poised around gateways. The airport terminal that structures the film is merely the most concrete and accessible, for through it we witness the journey overseas of courageous individuals and the warm returns of soldiers who are overwhelmingly thankful for a simple handshake.
The film is not “about” war, nor is it necessarily “about” patriotism. Yes, those are major themes, but filmmaker Gaudet has his camera far more focused on capturing humanity.
In his three subjects, he has found marvelously moving portraits of citizens trying to keep their lives and spirits strong even as they recognize the impending twilight of their entire generation.
This focus makes up the film’s other, far more sobering, gateway. Thanking soldiers for their unflinching service is itself a form of unflinching service that, for these three, gives them a haven to escape from their perpetual worries and concerns.
“The Way We Get By” hits the heart like a gigantic hug. In a time of cynicism and political outrage, where each side of the spectrum is wrapped up in concerns about what is “best” for America, Gaudet’s film reminds of the potential of the American spirit.
What Gaudet lacks in technical prowess as a filmmaker, he makes up for in unashamed emotion. Always heartfelt yet rarely sappy, “The Way We Get By” is an affecting footnote of a film, exemplary in its depiction of soldiers returning from war and of citizens trying to honor them.
Though it is completely contained in the lives of its three subjects, Gaudet’s film seems to nag at a somber subtext for our society as a whole: why can’t more of us find this kind of selfless compassion?