In 2010, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, filmmaker Connor Timmis set out on a year-long trip to honor not only his late grandfather John Finnigan, a veteran of the war, but to talk to other veterans and families impacted by the war, to get their stories. The end result is the documentary Finnigan’s War. Over the course of just under an hour, the film explores tales of tragedy and bravery as stories of the “forgotten heroes of a forgotten war” get their due.
My initial impression of the film was not a favorable one; the title rubbed me the wrong way. While I get that many are ignorant of the Korean War, it felt somewhat disrespectful to all the other soldiers and their families to re-frame the war as relating only to one person. It is applicable in a real world sense, however, since so many of us relate to larger events and issues based on our own personal touchstones, and in this case that is Timmis’ grandfather, but that doesn’t mean it won’t, or can’t, evoke a negative first impression; not ultimately a fair overall assessment, but that was the first impression that I got.
That said, the film does settle into its groove and actually does succeed in exploring the stories of other Korean War veterans and their families, honoring those in the film. If you look at the filmmaking choices as what they are, extensions of the journey of Timmis himself, then his personal involvement on camera, the choices of subjects, and the order in which they are presented, makes sense. You start with what and who you know, and expand from there.
Thus the film stays true to its intention of focusing on the lives and stories of its wide-ranging subjects, though sometimes to the detriment of an overall context. Since the film points out that the Korean War is often referred to as the forgotten war, thus acknowledging an overall ignorance of the history, then the filmmakers must be aware that the audience may need a grander context beyond the individual stories. I’m not saying the entire history of the Korean War needed to be laid bare in striking detail, but a refresher course, perhaps early on, would’ve been helpful.
Then again, this film is ultimately not about the war itself, and more about the people involved. In this way it hearkens back to that choice of title, and it could has easily have been re-named Rubin’s War, Chew-Een Lee’s War, Red Cloud’s War or The 2nd Ranger’s War, for example. All would be accurate and applicable.
On the technical side of things, the film is often matter-of-fact when it comes to the talking heads and interviews sequences, but the energy completely changes when scenes are intercut with comic book-style recreations of the different veterans’ and families’ tales of war. These animated scenes, narrated by Mark Hamill, often bring a forward momentum to the piece; a welcome slap to the face of anyone who might be getting too relaxed from the more traditional storytelling.
In the end, I respect the intentions of filmmaker Connor Timmis; I think this film comes from the right place, and I think this is evident in the fact that any profits from the film go to the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs. I didn’t always like the execution, however, and, even at just under an hour, the film feels a little long. Then again, as a tribute, I don’t know that a time limit is an issue; how long is too long to honor those who fought and died for their country, or in defense of the defenseless?
As a film, however, it doesn’t always sustain the energy, even considering the injections given by its more artistically creative elements. Ultimately, my criticisms come down to those elements of the filmmaking, and even though they may seem harsh, the truth is I’m glad the film was made, and that someone took the time to honor, in whatever way they could, those who fought and died in the Korean War.
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