It’s hard to come out of Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good without a healthy feeling of irony. You’ve just witnessed a prime example of man’s inhumanity and cruelty inspiring a display of man’s greatest virtues–honor, sacrifice, compassion, and unity. It’s not just a concert film; it’s another illustration of the central thesis of Andrew Breitbart’s Righteous Indignation: that pop culture trumps politics without fail. In the midst of a hopelessly contentious and divisive foreign war, our politicians and pundits have nowhere near the profound effect on troop morale as a simple cover band led by a TV actor. The study of the relationship between civilian and soldier in wartime provides a compelling subject for this expansive documentary.
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Director Jonathan Flora frames the film around Gary Sinise, an actor and director with a long, intimate history with soldiers and veterans, though he himself has never served. From his brother-in-law, who was killed in Vietnam, to current bandmate Kimo Williams, a ‘Nam veteran who started jamming with Sinise after they met on a production of A Streetcar Named Desire in the mid-90s, his career has always seemed to providentially intertwine with the military. Following the jihadist attacks of 9/11, Sinise felt compelled to help those directly affected by the Twin Towers’ destruction, volunteering in campaigns to benefit the FDNY. This spirit of volunteerism, in concert with his ever more frequent band practices with Williams, materialized into a USO tour in 2003. Despite his diverse résumé, Sinise was universally associated with his Oscar-nominated performance as “Lieutenant Dan” from Forrest Gump, so as the group expanded, Sinise named it the “Lieutenant Dan Band,” and the rest is history.
It’s tempting to think this is a vanity project for Sinise, now better known for his long-running role on CSI: New York–that like other celebrities, he’s got a pet cause designed to make him look like a good guy. It’s certainly clear the producers ask virtually every interviewee their opinion of the man, but any doubts the viewer entertains about his sincerity quickly evaporate as the film reveals a level of determination and effort that would be noteworthy from anyone, celebrity or no. We see him orchestrate an increasingly elaborate stage show, drawing on his experience running Chicago’s Steppenwolf theatre. We see his family silently bear the burden of his prolonged absences; they miss him but recognize his time away as tours of duty. We realize Sinise and co. aren’t ego strokers reading a PSA script for a check, whipping up crocodile tears over the ozone layer so they can lecture flyover country and feel morally superior. They’re hard-working entertainers willing to put their lives on hold and travel to war zones all to display their gratitude to our servicemen and women.
Aside from the warm fuzzies it’ll put in your heart, For the Common Good is an entertaining and exhaustive documentary. We’re treated to a brief history of the USO, Gary’s young introduction to both music and acting, musical numbers by the Lt. Dan Band switching seamlessly from one concert’s footage to the next, and plenty of interviews with soldiers and veterans. We get to meet members of the band as well, and it becomes rather apparent why Kimo and Gary gravitated toward each other; both are natural storytellers and performers. One of the film’s highlights is Kimo revealing how he almost got shot playing a concert (while still a soldier) at a fire base in Vietnam. Other notable sequences include a view and discussion of the inside of one of Saddam Hussein’s mansions, a “Snowball Express” concert for the children and other family members of deployed soldiers, and a few cameos from other celebrities such as John Ratzenburger, Robert Duvall, Gary Cole, and Jon Voight.
The film’s title comes from an Abraham Lincoln quote that perfectly sums up its themes: “Honor to the Soldier and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country’s cause. Honor also the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as best he can, the same cause. Honor to him, who braves for the common good.” In any other context, I know the phrase “for the common good” would cause many here to blow a gasket over its collectivist implications, but in this documentary we see the concept in its noblest form. Our soldiers sacrifice themselves not to prop up dependents but to protect independence, and we see how one man’s thankfulness for that protection plays its own part in carrying our troops forward in their mission.
Lt. Dan Band: For the Common Good is available through On Demand nationwide, or you can view the film directly through its website.