“A few years ago,” said KPBS general manager Tom Karlo to the 25 or so people gathered in the plush quiet of the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Theater at the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts on September 27, “we were trying to figure out what we could do to align ourselves with the military, to celebrate the military and how valuable it is to our community. We decided the best thing we could do is tell stories” — hence the San Diego GI Film Festival, and that evening’s screening of I Am That Man, the story of a Navy SEAL who comes home to find a strained marriage and a victimized friend. He takes decisive, violent action to address the latter matter, but finds fixing the former to be murkier going.
Matthew Marsden wrote, directed, and starred in the film, and after the screening, he joined producer Margaret Blackwell and KPBS film critic Beth Accomando up front for a Q&A. Marsden traced his love of film to a youthful desire for escape, noting that his home of West Bromwich was situated in the region that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s ruined realm of Mordor. And he traced his admiration for the American military to his time spent filming Black Hawk Down. “We were training at Fort Benning in Georgia, and I was speaking to this soldier, he must have been about 20 years old. I asked why he joined the Army Rangers, and he answered, ‘For freedom.’ It was a real moment for me, as a European, to hear an American really say that and mean it. It’s kind of mocked in Europe: ‘For freedom.’ I said to him, ‘You’d die for me, wouldn’t you?’ and he said ‘Yes, sir,’ and I thought, this is the greatest country in the world.”
That admiration led to a desire to “tackle the core issues” affecting veterans. “One of the things that really hit me was the brotherhood in the military and law enforcement. I get a lot of four o’ clock in the morning phone calls, because I’m not in the family, but I kind of understand them — I’m sort of a weird uncle. It’s really strange to me how these heroes look at actors; I got to know what they were going through. I’ve got one friend who says, ‘I can’t talk to my dad. He comes to me and he says, “I’m your family,” but he’s not my family. He’s not a Marine. These guys are my family.’ You have people at home who are trying, and who don’t understand. One of the things that I really would love is, if there’s a couple or a family where there’s a breakdown in communication, then perhaps someone can send them this film and say, ‘Just take a minute and watch this.’ Veterans can come home.”
Perhaps because of that desire, Marsden’s character may be the star, but it’s his wife who saves the day. Producer Blackwell called the character “a metaphor for the way the feminine tempers the masculine, when life gets to be too much. Smoothings, sometimes with a firmer hand than others, and sometimes vice versa. That’s the complementarity between men and women.”