Thursday, December 3, 2009

Film review: 'Brothers' a shattering story of the cost of war

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brothers.

By John Thomason

The release date couldn’t be more fortuitous. Hitting theaters nationwide the week Barack Obama announced his plans to send an additional 34,000 troops to secure Afghanistan, Jim Sheridan’s family drama Brothers is at once timely and transcendent.

An explosive and sobering reminder of the emotional and mental cost of war at home and abroad – and particularly this war, in its myriad complexities – Brothers presents a story in which virtually every character is a tragic one, each caught in a corrosive, Shakespearean spiral of filial guilt and trauma.

The brothers of the title are Sam (Tobey Maguire), an admirable Marine embarking on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, and Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), a wayward delinquent just released from prison. When Sam’s Black Hawk helicopter is shot down over Afghan mountains, he and his squadron are presumed dead. The news devastates his wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and two daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), who, over the next few months, form a fatherly bond with the gradually reformed Tommy.

Little do they know that Sam has been surviving – barely – in a Taliban POW camp, where he is forced at gunpoint to commit a horrible act that will change his life irrevocably. Sam is eventually saved and returned home, a soulless shell of flesh and bone, a veritable monster whose displaced jealousy threatens to destroy the entire family.

If the story sounds familiar, it’s because Brothers is a loyal remake of Susanne Bier’s 2004 Danish drama of the same name. The original Brothers is a great film in itself; Bier is a successful protégé of Lars von Trier and his rigid, cultlike Dogme 95 movement, which aimed to strip movies of any hint of sentiment or artifice in a search for cinematic purity. Brothers is one of at least three films Bier has made – alongside Open Hearts and Things We Lost in the Fire – in which husbands become incapacitated and their wives form bonds with rival men.

Freed from this obsessively personal Bier trademark, Hollywood’s Brothers lives and breathes on its own; by the halfway point, I never gave a thought to the Danish film. It has a slicker studio sheen, of course, but it’s arguably more intense than its predecessor. Moreover, Brothers is properly updated to reflect the cultural and topographical landscape inhabited by the movie’s microcosm of the traditional, God-fearing American military family. To this point, screenwriter David Benioff (who also adapted The Kite Runner) adds the character of Hank (Sam Shepard), the brothers’ hardhat Vietnam-vet father for whom Sam is a hero and Tommy a deadbeat.

What’s really striking about this version is the directorial selection of Jim Sheridan, the scrappy Irish filmmaker whose stories about working-class people rising above adversity include My Left Foot, In America and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. Sheridan has always been good at what he does, but uncompromising antiwar dramas without silver linings were never part of his forte – until now.

For Tobey Maguire, it’s the most versatile performance of his life, matched superlatively by Portman’s dynamic, mature Grace and Gyllenhaal’s redemptive Tommy. Expect to see all three nominated for gold statuettes early next year. Ditto to Benioff for his adapted screenplay, with its profound understanding of grief, guilt and shame.

Because the central conflict of Brothers lies within the family, the film’s politics do not extend much beyond the impact of the home. But Brothers is proof that a film needn’t (and shouldn’t) be preachy to provoke change. Hollywood has always been the bleeding heart behind the politics of war, forever supporting the troops.

If there’s one movie Obama should have seen before committing thousands more of our soldiers to the Afghan morass, it’s this one.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

BROTHERS. Distributor: Lionsgate; Director: Jim Sheridan; Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, Clifton Collins Jr. and Mare Winningham; Rated: R; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most commercial houses

1 comment:

Eric Davidson said...

the movie Brothers poses an important question: Is it possible to support U.S. soldiers and oppose war at the same time?