A TV news report interrupted independent filmmaker Jack Thomas Smith’s career in creating thrillers.
The report was about several U.S. service members who had died in Afghanistan. Their loss struck Mr. Smith, but so did the anonymity behind the reportage.
“We didn’t hear their names or anything about them,” Mr. Smith recalled. “We need to learn about these people. They weren’t statistics. They had family, friends, dreams, goals.”
That inspired him to create a program to fill in those blanks.
Mr. Smith’s “War Heroes,” hosted by former Army Ranger Kris Paronto, goes beyond what most other TV military documentaries attempt. The series delivers a holistic view of the U.S. military, giving complete profiles of soldiers who fought and sometimes sacrificed their lives for their country. It relies on interviews with real service members and their relatives and friends — not on dramatic reenactments.
“We have enough ‘Housewives’ shows. Let’s start learning about these people,” said the director, whose work includes “Infliction,” a 2014 found-footage scarefest, and “Disorder,” a psychological suspense murder mystery from 2006.
The premiere episode puts the spotlight on Army Sgt. Ryan E. Doltz, a native of Mine Hill, New Jersey, who was killed by an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq on June 5, 2004.
“We tell his entire life story from birth to when he joined the service and his death. We show what his family has done with their loss. They turned this into an amazing foundation named after him. We see what his family has done to keep his memory alive,” Mr. Smith said. “It’s his whole story.”
The project may appear to be a departure from Mr. Smith’s previous films, but “War Heroes” speaks to a long-standing pride.
“I’ve always been pro-military. I’m a Reagan guy. … This is something I’ve always been passionate about,” he said.
Mr. Paronto says the show’s focus on the families of service members attracted him to the project. That component even helped him process his own emotions, particularly regarding the mainstream media’s coverage of military matters.
“I don’t have a very good relationship with the mainstream media,” said Mr. Paronto, an 18-year veteran who survived the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead.
He recalled how he watched Cheryl Doltz, Sgt. Doltz’s mother, reconcile herself to Newsweek magazine’s use of her son’s image without the family’s approval.
“It showed me that you don’t have to be angry; you can find acceptance,” Mr. Paronto said. “I admired that strength.”
Mr. Paronto said “War Heroes” offers something critical for audiences: a chance to experience what he and his fellow veterans have endured. It may be secondhand, but it still packs an emotional punch, he said.
“Every war movie still has that human aspect to it, and it brings people’s emotions out,” Mr. Paronto said, adding that holds true for films and documentary series like “War Heroes.”
“It gives [audiences] the emotional impact of what war does to those who go over and serve,” the former Ranger said.
The series also provides a service to the families impacted by their loved ones’ sacrifices.
“It is therapeutic for the family as well. … It shows that people care,” Mr. Paronto said.
Mr. Smith credits filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood (“American Sniper”) and Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor”) for bringing more positive portrayals of U.S. soldiers to theaters in recent years.
Their efforts assuaged audiences disturbed by a Hollywood trend in the Iraq War era that included polemical films such as “Stop-Loss,” “Redacted” and “In the Valley of Elah.”
“They always seemed to paint our soldiers in a bad light. I didn’t support that,” Mr. Smith said. “You can disagree with the war; that’s our First Amendment right … [but] they forget that protesting, and their venom toward the war or toward our president, hurts the morale of our soldiers.”
Mr. Smith is negotiating a deal to bring “War Heroes” to small screens nationwide.
The “War Heroes” pilot, already shot, offers an emotional tribute to Sgt. Doltz, but Mr. Smith said the series won’t cover fallen soldiers exclusively. He said proposed episodes will feature Vietnam veteran reunions, former soldiers grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more.
“The stories are endless,” he said.
One factor will remain constant. “War Heroes” honors American soldiers without compromise.
“It’s showing the military in a positive way. I wouldn’t do anything but that,” the director said. “The ability I have to make my thriller movies, that freedom to do that, to pursue my passion, has always been there because of our military.”
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