The pitfall inherent to fly-on-the-wall, vérité-style documentariesas opposed to, say, the Ken Burns model of archives and talking headsis that sometimes a great story simply never materializes. For every Hoop Dreams or Paradise Lost, where real-life drama unfolds in front of the camera, there are probably hundreds of naturalistic docs that lay fallow, as inert glops of unrealized potential. Sometimes it's a problem of access, poorly chosen subjects, or unseasoned filmmakers who lack the instincts to be in the right place at the right time. But other times, the footage just doesn't take shape, and no amount of tweaking or restructuring can fix it.
Over a two-year stint, first-time Canadian director Sarah Goodman followed three young Americans as they enlisted in the Army in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks. Doing her best to staunch the faint whiff of a political agenda, Goodman admirably steps back and observes the well-intentioned trio as they discover that the reality of service doesn't live up to the recruitment ads. Army Of One shows how their lives are transformed in radical and mostly disillusioning ways, but Goodman's camera appears to have missed all the key moments, leaving her to make do with the footage she has and sort everything else out after the fact.
Perhaps more focus would have helped. Taken alone, any one of the three subjects might have made for a rich case-study on how the modern Army accommodates the needs of today's youth. The most compelling and troubled of the group is Thaddeus Ressler, a junior stockbroker who abandons his post to fulfill his patriotic duty after 9/11, but becomes so disenchanted that his depression spins off into alcoholism. A tough Puerto Rican-American from a South Bronx ghetto, Nelson Reyes seems most likely to succeed in the Army, but the rigors of basic training eventually lead him to go AWOL. Unexpectedly, it's soft-spoken misfit Sara Miller who carves out a niche for herself in the Airborne division, having hardened her once-apathetic outlook into a greater sense of self.
With the possible exception of Ressler, whose "individual" qualities immediately make him stand out in a bad way among his peers, Army Of One gets precious little out of its subjects. Once Reyes goes AWOLthe legal consequences of which are not fleshed out in Army Of OneGoodman doesn't really know what to do with him, other than presenting one touching scene where he worries openly about his former comrades at war. For her part, Miller remains an enigma, a collegiate dance major who backs into the Army with a shrug, hoping to impress her disapproving father. By the end, even Goodman seems to have lost interest: Leaving off in fall of 2003, with the war in Iraq still raging and two of its subjects on active duty, Army Of One ends without so much as a postscript.