Given these facts, Matthews’ movie could have given us a real War and peace, recounting how reluctant warrior O’Brien traveled to Vietnam, witnessed and transformed by war, then found a calling and built a career as a peacetime writer. But it’s not that type of movie. Documentaries about writers generally take an approach Biography, telling the story of life and correlating it with work, or portrait, showing us the personality who created the work (which we are usually supposed to know). Matthews’ film is the latest variety; he escorts us through the present stage of O’Brien’s life, rarely referring to the trials of Vietnam or the achievements of literary fame.
Although we learn almost nothing about his experiences leading up to the turn of the millennium, O’Brien’s life appears to have undergone some significant changes around this time. On the one hand, he started a teaching career at Texas State University-San Marcos. More importantly, he became a father in his late 50s, fathering two sons, Timmy and Tad, with his partner Meredith, who refused to continue their relationship if he did not commit to becoming a father.
Around the same time, it looks like O’Brien started to experience some serious writer’s block. In interviews, he has suggested a link between this event and the onset of fatherhood, as if the new engagement somehow compromises the previous one. But is this an accurate description of what happened, or an escape, an excuse?
Matthews’ film does not probe such questions as it eschews interviews, including those with O’Brien. He takes the fashionable approach of observing his subject the truth way, giving us a glimpse into his life for the latter part of the past decade. We see a lot of Tim and his family at their suburban home in Austin, TX, where attention is paid to their domestic routines and rituals while trying to write, as well as the athletic endeavors of teenagers Timmy and Tad. ; we also follow Tim on his trips around the world, usually for speaking engagements. Then there’s his hospital stay with pneumonia (he’s had four recent cases), which doesn’t convince him to give up his habit of smoking two packs a day.