A new film by Aaron Matthews ’93 and Jennifer Mittelstadt ’92 will be released March 2 on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, and other digital streaming platforms.
The film, titled The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien, follows the renowned author of The Things They Carried and Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, as he struggles to write one last book. The documentary dives deep into the meaning and impact of war, as well as the effect of America’s forever wars on civilians and soldiers. It also gives an in-depth look into the creative process from the perspective of one of America’s most influential living authors.
Watch the film’s trailer online here.
Matthews, who spent five years creating the film, met O’Brien during an interview he directed for PBS called The Draft. “Working on that project, I became interested in how most Americans are so disconnected from the wars we wage, how so few people in this country bear the burden of killing and dying,” Matthews recalled. “When I talked with Tim, I had my heart blown open. He was a smart, funny wordsmith—which you might expect from a legendary author—but he was also emotionally raw and open in a way that I found electrifying. In his trademark jeans and ball cap, he presents as this regular guy. But he’s not a regular guy. He’s operating on a higher level, able to express big ideas, especially about the meaning and impact of war, in a powerful, relatable way. Plus, he chain-smoked throughout the interview, so the frame was filled with cinematic swirls . . . Everything about him screamed ‘not your typical ivory tower writer.'”
Matthews also learned that O’Brien was considering writing one last book after swearing off sentences for 15 years. He also was raising two boys; the first was born when O’Brien was 58. Wesleyan alumnus Bill Shapiro ’87 played a crucial role when, almost 20 years ago as the Editor-in-Chief of LIFE, he encouraged O’Brien to pen an essay for the magazine about becoming a father at a late age. (O’Brien ended up writing that piece, and it turned into the book that The War and Peace chronicles O’Brien writing.)
“I thought there might be a story to tell in all this—watching this country’s “poet laureate of war” engaging with war in the broadest sense. Not just the wars our nation wages, but also the wars we all fight—with our jobs, our families, and with ourselves. I hoped that if I hung around long enough, a compelling arc and a storyline would reveal themselves, and they did,” Matthews said.
O’Brien was reluctant at first to do the film. “But he’s unfailingly polite, so he didn’t flat-out reject the idea immediately,” said Matthews, who continued to stay in touch and attend some of his readings. In the meantime, Matthews sent O’Brien samples of his previous films, and “finally wore him down.” A year later, O’Brien agreed to do the film on a “we’ll see what happens” basis, and they started production.
Matthews, who serves as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of the film, is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose films have appeared on national and international television, and at over 50 film festivals around the world. His documentaries The Paper, A Panther in Africa, and My American Girls all broadcast on PBS’s flagship documentary series POV, or Independent Lens. He has been a Sundance Fellow and has received funding from The Sundance Institute, The Independent Television Service, The New York State Council on the Arts, The Jerome Foundation, The Brooklyn Arts Council, The Puffin Foundation, and Latino Public Broadcasting. Matthews majored in English literature at Wesleyan.
Mittelstadt, who serves as co-producer and history consultant of the film, is a professor of history at Rutgers University, where she specializes in the history of politics, the state, gender, and the military. She is the author of From Welfare to Workfare and The Rise of the Military Welfare State. She has served as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Harold K. Johnson Chair in Military History at the U.S. Army War College, and is currently at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. In addition to her scholarly background, Mittelstadt brings extensive experience in the production of films and videos, co-producing Matthews’ three previous films, The Paper, A Panther in Africa, and My American Girls.
Matthews and Mittelstadt met at Wesleyan in 1990 and got married in 2003.
For Matthews, the film was personal. Prior to his filmmaking career, Matthews entertained the idea of becoming a writer, and recalls memorable classes taught by professors of English (now emerita) Richard Slotkin and Phyllis Rose.
“Today, even though I love movies and I earn a living making them, books are still my touchstone. So, doing this film offered a way to connect with that part of me that probably still wants to be a writer. Jennifer calls the film the novel I never wrote,” he said.
The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien also is a 2020 Sarasota Film Festival, Newport Beach Film Fest, and St. Louis International Film Festival official selection.