Ever Deeper, 'Way' Plumbs Home Truth

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

Their first contact with U.S. soil is the single asphalt runway at Bangor International Airport in Maine. The first citizen they see is often Bill Knight, posture stooped, pushing 90, wearing his World War II veteran cap, pumping the hand of every service member who deplanes after tours of Iraq or Afghanistan. Knight, troop greeter at this gateway airport, is one of three senior citizens who are profiled, challenged and honored by "The Way We Get By," a lyrical documentary guaranteed to jerk tears and tug hearts over and over during its tight, haikulike 86 minutes.

No one comes home in a body bag. There are no dusty dispatches from Baghdad or Helmand province. There are no protests. There is no rhetoric. It's not that kind of war documentary. "The Way We Get By" is about three people, not about military or political combat. It strikes a deep, rich vein of emotion that flows through America's elderly, and it should be required viewing for those who think they know exactly what America is about.

Bill Knight, Joan Gaudet and Jerry Mundy (average age: 78) are dream subjects for a documentarian. They have the right mix of sass and wisdom and are naturals in front of a camera. They greet military transport planes that land at the airport, sometimes arriving at 4 a.m. with bright smiles and warm hugs, and they grapple with the rubs of old age at home. Knight, a widower who has cancer, staves off a creeping loneliness in a farmhouse overrun with cats and empty cans of Alpo. Gaudet has an aggressive pill regimen that combats her back pain but saps her energy. Mundy, whose closest friend is his dog, has never gotten over the long-ago death of a 10-year-old son.

Despite those ailments, they go about the business of helping others, inadvertently deploying life lessons in a Mainer's chalky accent and making sure servicemen and women (750,000 since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom) are greeted, thanked and given a chance to call home on a donated cellphone. They're such great characters, it's almost possible to forget they're real people living real lives.

"The Way We Get By" sidesteps easy sentiment and eyeballs something deeper and more primal than patriotism. More than anything else, Knight, Gaudet and Mundy are seeking a reason to live. Even in the latter decades of life, they search daily for meaning, for purpose. They only want to be good citizens. They want to be useful, in whatever way they can. They don't grouse. They don't overthink. They do. They are models of simple utility.

Such quiet devotion might seem sappy if trusted to the wrong storyteller, but filmmakers Aron Gaudet (Joan's son) and Gita Pullapilly aren't out to canonize their subjects or comment on war. Instead, they map the tricky emotional territory around mortality. "The Way We Get By" is as much art as it is documentary. It is atmospheric, with useful cutaway shots to ice floes and lilacs, with scenes cast in slanted winter light, with closeups of gnarled hands and wrinkled, tired faces. There is a cyclical movement in this perfectly titled documentary. It skims the surface at first and slowly circles deeper, finding a poetic echo in Knight's own military service, sharing in Mundy's evolving grief, watching Gaudet learn to say goodbye instead of "welcome home."

"The Way We Get By" is not so much a slice of life as the whole pie, the highs and lows of twilight living, all found and filmed in a terminal at an airport in Maine. What a country.

The Way We Get By (86 minutes, at AMC Shirlington) is unrated and contains no objectionable language, images or scenes.

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