With the right degree of patient understanding and sweet reason, any subject can be turned into bland mush. That’s part of the takeaway from the three-part PBS series Coming Back With Wes Moore, which follows some of the 2.5 million Americans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as they reintegrate themselves into civilian life. Moore, a bestselling author and former White House fellow who now hosts a show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, was himself a member of the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. So it’s natural that he has a special bond with the veterans who are profiled here. Sometimes that rapport can be felt in his one-on-one interviews, though it shows more in his body language than in anything he says.
In his spoken narration, Moore mostly talks in clichés that are familiar from movies and popular fiction about coming home, from the World War II-era The Best Years Of Our Lives on down. “No one comes back from war unchanged,” he says at the beginning of each episode. “Some wounds are visible. Others are etched into our souls.” He talks about how the experience of war “fundamentally changes” the way a “wounded warrior” perceives the world around him. “The irony of coming back injured,” he says, while a physically and emotionally scarred man with one hand is trying to navigate a trip to the movies with his family, is that you have to take charge of your life “after your ability to cope has been damaged.”
Moore plainly wants to present his subjects in a way that will appear inspirational and upbeat, or at least hopeful. Inevitably, the series is most interesting when his subjects make it hardest for him to turn them into nice, dull people that the nice, dull viewers watching at home can easily relate to. The maimed moviegoer, Bobby Henline—who also suffers from PTSD—says that it took him three years to adjust to seeing his changed appearance in the mirror. He now does stand-up comedy about his wartime and medical experiences; in a brief performance clip, his announcement that he served three tours in Iraq gets a bigger round of applause than any of his jokes. Some of the most touching and compelling moments in the series come when Henline talks about needing to move out of his house to get away from his family. Being a husband and father are a major part of his self-identity, but he has so much buzzing in his head that the noise and chaos of being surrounded by other people is unendurable to him. It’s too bad that the show can’t resist cheapening his pain with a maudlin, editorializing shot of him watching the rain while eating SpaghettiOs out of the can.
In terms of supplying a clear, “coming back from adversity” hero’s narrative, Henline is practically Harry Potter compared to some of the other stories that Moore tracks. He introduces viewers to Earl Johnson, a former Army Ranger who served overseas for years. Now a prime mover in a veteran-led community organization working to clean up and revitalize a decaying East Baltimore neighborhood, it’s later revealed Johnson exaggerated his military service, in part to keep people from asking too many questions about his past as a convicted felon. If Moore were a documentary filmmaker, instead of a packager of inspiring narratives, he might have sensed that he’d tripped over a larger story about what makes a man fabricate his past to improve his future. Instead, the best Moore can do is record the disappointment and anger expressed by Johnson’s wife and buddy, before mildly telling Johnson to his face that he admires the good he’s done, but disapproves of his lying.
There’s also a vet who aims to break into professional baseball, only to be held back by his age and his missing leg. When Moore sits down a few inches from the vet and tells him how great it is that, in so little time, he’s gone from being shot at in a distant land to failing to make one of the biggest baseball teams in the country, it’s easy to imagine the editor cutting away just before the vet throws a chair at the host’s head. There’s plenty in Coming Back that gives the viewer a sense of the enormous cost of war: It’s there in the faces and voices of the men and women Moore puts on camera. It’s just frustrating that the show itself doesn’t show a fuller, deeper sense of that cost. Watching it is like seeing someone stick a Band-Aid on a bloody stump.