I always thought it was weird when cinemas started airing regular commercials before the movie. An advertisement for a Honda Civic seemed out of place when mixed in with trailers for the latest Spiderman or Transformers flick.
A staple was U.S. military recruitment ads. They’d show soldiers jumping out of helicopters and rescuing people from floods — real action-packed stuff. One of them showed a group of militiamen charging a line of British soldiers during the Revolutionary War with rock music blasting in the background. These zealous short films had a pretty simple message — join the military, become a hero. They were fun to watch, but never delved into the complex reality of a life of military service.
When the Smoke Clears: A Story of Brotherhood, Resilience and Hope, newly available for Amazon Prime viewing, delves into that reality, telling the story of former Israeli Defense Forces soldiers Gil, Ofer and Elad. We learn of their reasons for enlisting, the struggle of being injured in the line of duty and how they readjust to civilian life.
Gil is shot while trying to apprehend an enemy combatant during the Second Intifada, Ofer loses sight in his right eye after fighting in the Second Lebanon War and Elad gets shot in the head while participating in Operation Protective Edge.
Each of these combat moments is illustrated via black-and-white cartoons, which adds energy and drama to the interviewee’s voiceovers. The film’s cinematic score also adds to the intensity, although it can be a bit intrusive at some points.
When the Smoke Clears does great work at humanizing the trio with photos of them growing up and interviews with their friends and family. By the film’s end, you come to really care about them, but much of what is learned of their stories feels superficial. And because we have three subjects with fairly similar stories, the film comes across as a bit of a retread. They all enlist out of patriotism and have identical views reflecting on their time in the service.
It would have been interesting to see more of a variety of backgrounds and perspectives among the subjects — such as a veteran from a much older generation. That would have created opportunities to compare and contrast the subjects’ experiences, adding in the factor of showing how aspects of life in the Israeli military have either remained the same or changed over time.
But none of this detracts from the value of the film. While it goes over similar points multiple times, it’s all interesting and enhanced by fast editing and quick pacing.
Some of the interviewed parents mention how the military changed their sons, but the audience is never shown this change. For example, there’s a short clip of Elad struggling to play a song on the piano. This moment would have been more impactful if the audience had been shown Elad’s relation to music before he was injured.
Part of the problem is trying to tell three stories in 80 minutes. Each of the three narratives is compelling enough to carry a feature-length movie.
At the end of the film, we hear Ofer explaining how he isn’t a hero, all while surging music plays in the background. Earlier, there’s a scene where Ofer is being interviewed in his home about a medal he received, which he explained he had to look for, finding it in his parents’ basement. We then hear the interviewer speak (the only time in the movie) telling him how he should be proud of his accomplishment. Ofer remarks that several of his friends died in the conflict, so what does he have to be proud of?
Like those Army recruitment commercials I saw before the new Star Wars, When the Smoke Clears sets out to put its subjects on a pedestal without asking bigger questions.
If you’re looking for a feel-good, patriotic film that glorifies the Israeli military, you’ll enjoy this; after all, it did win Best Documentary Feature at the 2018 San Diego GI Film Festival. But if you’re looking for something deeper, something that really examines why a man like Ofer doesn’t see himself as a hero in a society that paints him as one, you’ll be left wanting more. PJC
Eric Schucht is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent, a Chronicle-affiliated publication.