Recent movies about Iraq and Afghanistan have failed to catch the interest of audiences, which makes me feel like I should 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.” I hate that.
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 dynamics of his family back home could just as easily have been the result of something other than war, perhaps a terrible crime or a horrible accident.
But Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish film of the same name, upon which Brothers is based, relies on the fact that Western soldiers have been deployed in the Middle East. And part of the immense power of this adaptation by director Jim Sheridan (In America, My Left Foot) and screenwriter 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. But it’s even more striking how different the two films actually are. There’s an intensity, an emotional edge-of-your-seatness here that overshadows the original (which isn’t to say it’s not a very good film in its own right). After all, this film happens a half decade after Bier’s story, and Western soldiers are still there fighting a war in the Middle East.
Sheridan captures those additional years of war-weariness thanks to the skills of his extraordinary cast. This is a remarkable showcase for Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Natalie Portman, 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 just how startlingly good this trio is and how they can hit you with an emotion you didn’t see coming.
It’s there in one early scene, as the Cahill family sits down to a tense dinner. One brother — Gyllenhaal’s Tommy — is just out of prison (and we don’t find out for a long time 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, as Sam’s wife Grace, is the anchor who keeps the family in place: her small daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare); her father-in-law Hank (Sam Shepard), an ex-Marine himself; and her mother-in-law Elsie (Mare Winningham).
The story to come is laid bare in the things no one can say and the things they can. There’s a triangle of deep bitterness, disappointment, and resentment between Hank and his sons. It’s here that 10-year-old Bailee Madison’s performance soars. In some ways, the little girl who is Isabelle will be the canvas upon which the family drama will paint itself. The actress 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 is that even if you know the grand sweep of the whole story, you cannot know how intensely 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. It’s the eloquent, authentic details of the people, not the plot, that makes this movie work as well as it does.