“The Way We Get By” is a documentary directed by Aron Gaudet, a Notre Dame alumnus. The film gives a close-up view of the lives of three senior citizens who have dedicated their time to showing appreciation and support for the American armed forces. These three volunteers, along with many others, are on call around the clock to show up at the airport in Bangor, Maine to greet troops returning from service in Iraq or Afghanistan. Fittingly, the film debuted on Veterans Day on the PBS series “Point of View.”
Although it falls into the documentary genre, “The Way We Get By” is filled with extraordinary pathos, packing a dramatic punch that most fictional movies can only hope for. Instead of pushing a political agenda, the film focuses its attention on the everyday struggles and triumphs of three troop greeters named Bill, Jerry and Joan.
Joan Gaudet, mother of director Aron Gaudet, provided Aron with the initial inspiration to make the film. At age 75 and with eight grown children, Joan continues to spread her maternal love to the soldiers who defend our country every day. She sleeps in a chair by the phone and sometimes is called to the airport at 3 a.m. to give a warm smile to the soldiers as they step off the plane. Over the course of the film, though, Joan must also reconcile her duty with her fear for the lives of two of her grandchildren who are going to serve in Iraq.
Jerry Mundy is a congenial 73-year-old ex-Marine who lives alone with his dog, Mr. Flannigan. When the troops arrive at the airport, Jerry jokes with them and offers them cell phones so they can call their friends and families. He feels joy along with the soldiers as they come back into their familiar country, but he also must face loneliness and unexplained heart problems.
The most moving story is that of Bill Knight, an 86-year-old World War II veteran. Bill knows he is getting too old to take care of himself. His house is a cluttered mess with cats running around all over the place, and he can barely make ends meet to pay his heating bill. He has also just found out that he has prostate cancer. Despite — or perhaps because of — all of this, Bill shows up at the airport for every flight to tell the arriving or departing troops how much they mean to their country.
“The Way We Get By” is a grippingly real, human film. It approaches the great abyss and does not back down but instead stares straight into it, searching for a bottom. As one would expect from a documentary about war and old age, death always seems to be just around the corner. But in the midst of all the darkness, the people in the film find new reason to live. As Bill puts it in the movie, “My life don’t mean a helluva lot to me, but if I can make it mean something to somebody else … that’s my endeavor.” Both the seniors and the soldiers find meaning in self-giving service to others. Too see how these two often forgotten groups of society lean on each other is incredibly moving and inspirational.
“The Way We Get By” has already won numerous awards, including the SXSW Film Festival’s Special Jury Award for 2009. To find more information on the film or watch the trailer, visit http://www.thewaywegetbymovie.com
Additionally, the makers of the movie have created a new, interactive Web site called “Returning Home” where anybody can post photos, videos, audio or written content showing support for U.S. troops. Please do not hesitate to visit the site (http://www.returninghomeproject.org) and show your appreciation for those who work to keep our country safe.