War on the Home Front
I hate that, because movies about the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to catch the interest of audiences, I feel like I have to say, “Oh, don’t worry, Brothers isn’t really about what’s happening to our soldiers in the Middle East, and what’s happening to them once they come home.” Sure, it’s true that this is a movie primarily about family, and sure, it’s true the experiences in Afghanistan that change Tobey Maguire’s Marine and inadvertently alter the family dynamics back at home could just as easily have been the result of something other than war: it could have been a terrible crime that impacts everyone here, or a horrible accident.
But let’s not be disingenuous: Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film of the same name [Region 1] [Region 2], upon which this is based, sprang from the fact that Western soldiers have been deployed in the Middle East. And part of the immense power of Jim Sheridan’s (Get Rich or Die Tryin’, In America) adaptation — the English-language script is by David Benioff (The Kite Runner, 25th Hour) — comes from the knowledge that the kind of drama we see unfolding here is not something unique and isolated but representational of the stress fractures that are pulling apart many military families. It is supremely unfair to the very many real people who will see themselves in this movie to pretend that this isn’t about them. It is supremely unfair to anyone who talks about “supporting the troops” to deny them the support of an honest, tough movie like this one.
So, yes, Brothers is a movie about our soldiers today in Iraq and Afghanistan. Deal with it.
It’s striking how closely Sheridan’s film parallels Bier’s, down to specific instances of sharp dialogue, and even more striking how different the two films feel nevertheless. There’s an intensity, an emotional edge-of-the-seatness here that overshadows the original (which isn’t to say it’s not a very good film in its own right). It’s half a decade later on from Bier’s story, for one thing, and those soldiers are still there in the Middle East. Sheridan captures that layering on of years of weariness with war through his extraordinary cast, who carry it like a physical weight. This is a remarkable showcase for Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man 3, Seabiscuit), Jake Gyllenhaal (Rendition, Zodiac), and Natalie Portman (The Other Boleyn Girl, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium), who remind us again that they are three of the most expressive, most compelling young actors working today. It sneaks up on you in this film, how startlingly good they are, how they can hit you with an emotion you didn’t see coming but that feels so perfectly right anyway.
It there’s in one early scene, as the Cahill family sits down to a tense dinner. One brother — Gyllenhaal’s Tommy — is just out of prison (we don’t know for a long while why he was there). The other — Maguire’s Sam, a Marine captain — is off to Afghanistan again, and eager for it; once there, he ponders how it “almost feels like home.” Portman’s Grace, Sam’s wife, is the quiet anchor who has been keeping the rest of the family together: her and Sam’s small daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison: Bridge to Terabithia) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), the guys’ dad, Hank (Sam Shepard: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Charlotte’s Web), an ex-Marine himself, and his wife, Elsie (Mare Winningham). The roadmap of the story to come is laid bare here, in the things no one can say to one another and the things they can — there’s a triangle of deep bitterness, disappointment, and resentment between Hank and his sons; and it’s here that the amazing performance that Bailee Madison will give begins to reveal itself. In some ways, the little girl who is Isabelle will be the canvas upon which the family drama will paint itself; the actress, who only just turned 10, is able to express the terrible inner turmoil of a child watching her family fall apart. I’ve never seen a child so young be so effective onscreen — she is heartbreaking.
What may have been most startling to me is that even if you know the grand sweep of the whole story — as I did from the trailer, which appears to reveal all; though familiarity with the Danish film will do it, too, of course — you cannot know how intensely, wrenchingly potent Brothers is without having seen it through. To say that Sam is lost in Afghanistan and presumed dead, and that his family mourns him and moves on, and then has to readjust again when he is found and returns home is no kind of spoiler. (Indeed, the fact that Sam is not dead is not a matter of suspense at all.) Because it is in all the same, eloquent, authentic details of the people, not the plot, that makes this movie work so well as it does.