A sincere and moving effort with (perhaps) some punches pulled

Brothers at War

on May 06, 2009 by Matthew Nestel

Civilian Jake Rademacher is not championing a case for or against war, nor is he provoking an insurgency with his camera in Brothers at War. He’s focused on the foot soldiers—namely his kin—whether out of duty to country or to prevent future soldiers the clichéd path of nowhere deployment to Iraq, where they literally land smack in the middle of desert wearing fatigues, aiming a loaded rifle and munching beef jerky. The thoughtful work walks a few paces in soldiers’ boots. Given angel exec producer Gary Sinise’s ninth inning save, the doc should reach a target audience of empathetic Americans who will rethink their octave levels when fussing about the soggy iceberg lettuce at the local Wal-Mart.

With Baghdad bureaus slowly evaporating as budget tsars cut into the marrow of newsrooms, the day-to-day war theatre goes unseen and unheard. Were it not for some adrenaline-junkie journos and filmmakers most news would be write-arounds from sterile wire copy leisurely handed down from a central military apparatus. The doc filmmaker here is the only one of his brothers who never wore the uniform and, as a result, feels like an outsider. On a self-guided tour of duty, Rademacher parachutes into the sick. He sets out with just two cameras to embed with the Army on their missions.

Before the credits appear you’re gazing at a charbroiled jeep and chewing the fat with Staff Sergeant Edward Allier, a Marine touring with an untested Iraqi brigade. Rademacher gabs about a typical ‘worst day in the life’ and it involves a plain bagel for breakfast because craft services forgot to buy cream cheese. Allier’s Brooklyn swagger sardonically chimes back “You got it rough.” It’s a genius move to put Allier front and center. He doesn’t reappear until later but the picture really begins with him. He is a charismatic no-name that is the kind of ambassador you want to do the heavy-lifting in this conflict—and when terror strikes he is as cool as the Fonz.

The emotional draw ingrained in the piece is that the filmmaker has a personal stake in the fate of this film and its subjects coming out intact. Rademacher’s younger muscle-bound brother, Isaac, is a decorated captain who wears his badge of courage on his sleeve. He resembles Robert Duvall’s character in Lieutenant Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. Bombs could fall down inches away and not only would he survive but he wouldn’t flinch.

However, upon kissing his infant daughter goodbye before leaving on his third deployment to Iraq, the tough guy’s bravado disarms, and for good reason. He confesses, “I might be walking out for the last time—abandoning the people I love the most. And for what? A cause? I already told you I believe in what we’re doing; but you’re asking a lot.” Seeing him board an airplane bound for the unknown in slow motion is eerie.

Soon enough his eager beaver brother is en route to join Isaac and follow him lead recognizance along the Syrian border. Instantly, you catch the struggles of civilians trying to adapt to the soldier’s routine. Arriving in the desert the brothers finally hug. The captain is not about mushy moments. He’s a steady hand, unfazed when the camera is on him. He leads by example all of the time. A break in his steady and level countenance would disrupt the way his men respond to him. It’s as if Isaac’s a solider first. This Army’s his family. Everybody’s a brother. And nobody gets special treatment.

Jake Rademacher braves the brutal heat and isolation while shadowing a handful of members of the 82nd Airborne, staking-out a swath of the Syrian border where it is believed foreign militants are slipping through. Five days of idleness are filled with guys watching their favorite episodes of teen drama The OC, sharing tales of nationalism, talking about their cheating ex-girlfriends, the pittance pay they get and how to excrete out on the range. Not much is taboo. Not even the soldier who admits his watershed moment was when he almost pulled a sniper’s trigger on a youth who was brandishing a toy AK-47.

Returning home in North Carolina, Isaac is adjusting to life and reacquainting himself with his daughter. Jake gets back and absorbs some ribbing from his other brother Joe, a soldier planning to reenlist. Jake’s an outsider who still doesn’t know what it’s like to face death’s door knock. The family soldiers on together. The war is always on the parents’ minds and so too is the memory of a brother who died—not on the battlefield, but to drugs—in the prime of his youth.

Though much time is logged on-camera with the trusting soldiers, there is so much that remains unanswered. And while the life back home is given some frames, you wonder about how members cope when their fate lies in the hands of powerful eagles who could call for a surge anytime.

You want to believe that these men got a calling and that their families assimilate by mending whatever wear and tear occurs to their respective quilts. The filmmaker has the chance to be a little prejudiced and dig a little deeper, being that he is in the circle. But even he admits there’s no wife or children to think about and his hours of material is only a hint at what lies in the bottomless war chest.

You can show these men in a fond light. Most probably deserve it. Maybe they all do. At some point, matters must have occurred that rained on this ordered chaos. Where are the contradictions? There wasn’t one American soldier shown wounded or killed. Lucky? I hope so. But if you’re going to tell the tale straight from the war horse’s mouth its incumbent to step away and let things dictate themselves. That never happens here. And it is only fair to the viewer who is banking on the real McCoy to be offered the goods a la carte.

Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: Jake Rademacher
Producer: Norman S. Powell, Jake Rademacher
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R for language and a brief war image.
Running time: 110 min
Release date: April 10 ltd.

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