‘The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien’ Review

“We are all writing our ‘Maybe’ book.” So says National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, the renowned war story author best known for his groundbreaking 1990 book, The Things They Carried. The book was based on his experiences in the Vietnam War, and Mr. O’Brien is the title character of the documentary The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien. Four years of filming (off and on) covers O’Brien’s journey in writing his next (perhaps last) book…his first since 2002.

O’Brien lives in Austin with his wife, Meredith, and their two sons, Timmy and Tad. The couple look back to facing a fork in the road when Meredith wanted kids and Tim did not. He became a father for the first time at age 56, vowing to be a “decent” father. During those years, he did not write, and eventually it was Meredith that urged him to return to the keyboard. She says, “An artist makes art, a writer should write.” And much of Aaron Matthews’ movie explores O’Brien’s writing struggles and his admitted battle in balancing family and writing.

With his ever-present cigarette and stash of notes and ideas, O’Brien walks us through some of his thought-processes. His sons have shown no interest in learning about his war years, his childhood, or much of anything else in regards to their father. They are simply normal teenagers more focused on sports, friends, and screen time. O’Brien acknowledges this, and is inspired by the idea that after he’s gone, they will appreciate knowing what made their father tick. He cringes at the thought of being remembered for the worst thing that ever happened to him (war) but knows he would have valued the effort from his own dad – despite what we learn from a segment where O’Brien and his brother and sister reminisce about their parents.

In addition to being an incredibly talented writer, Tim O’Brien is a deep thinker, and actually quite courageous to invite cameras into his inner sanctum. Death is often on his mind, and even 50+ years later, he’s still haunted by his war experience – even though he has forged a writing and speaking career from it. The proof of his internal demons is seen with O’Brien on his hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor in the wee hours of the morning. We see him labor over a few words just like he labors over a magic trick – a few of which we see. Just don’t ask him to play the trombone. O’Brien speaks to the futility of his writing, and how his words have no impact on whether more are sent into battle. He labels himself a “Preacher of Peace,” but we are never really confident he has found peace…perhaps acceptance is more fitting. Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien was published in 2019.