By Francine Schwartz
Enjoying a movie requires a certain amount of suspension of belief. After all, we are glimpsing into the lives of characters we’ve just met. And we are given only two hours or so to grasp it all. When a movie works, we are drawn into the story to such an extent that the boundaries of time become meaningless. The missing pieces fall into place and we manage to forget that what we are watching is a representation of events and human interaction, and not the actuality. For those two hours in the dark, we are “there.”
Brothers is a powerful movie that addresses many sweeping themes—loyalty, nationalism, guilt, desire, forgiveness, redemption. Tobey Maguire is Captain Sam Cahill, the prodigal son, a decorated Marine who takes his job very seriously and is devoted to the men under his command. Maguire delivers a tour de force performance, stretching into realms of human emotion he has not had the chance before to deliver. And he clearly has the talent and strength to do it. More than anyone in the movie, Maguire releases his ego to his character so completely that we easily forget we are watching an actor and not a soldier bearing the lasting damage of physical and emotional torture.
Happily married to his high school sweetheart Grace, (Natalie Portman), Sam is redeployed to Afghanistan. Shortly after, his plane is shot down and he is believed to be dead. The dreadful news is delivered to his wife. And here the dichotomy in the movie begins. We see the reality of Sam’s horrific circumstances in the hands of the Taliban. And we see Grace’s reality back home, where somehow her house is bright, her hair and clothes look great in a very ‘natural’ way, and she even begins to feel a convenient attraction to Sam’s brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), the attractive black sheep of the family, recently released from prison.
The scenes in Afghanistan are gritty and believable. We hold our breath as we are reminded that war is not simple and that untold horrors are the rule, not the exception. Many of the scenes back home lose that sense of truth. They are too Hollywood—the colors too rich, the ‘tra la la’ quality of some of the domestic scenes just fitting into place so nicely. As good and thought provoking as the overall theme of the movie is, the implausibility of these events and situations interrupt the power of the film, preventing us from being entirely drawn in. Too many scenes are cutesy, convenient, disjointed; it’s as if we’re viewing two disparate treatments of reality combined into one film. One being cinema verite, the other being melodrama. As a result, the suspension of belief we initially felt about the harsh reality of war’s collateral damage on the battlefield and at home is diluted.
Another issue is the sense of time. It isn’t clear how much time has elapsed from Sam’s departure to his plane being shot down. Nor is it clear how much time before Tommy becomes a fixture in the household and a relationship is developing between him and Grace. You would think this would take considerable time, considering that she used to despise him and that the two daughters who never liked him either are now charmed by him.
Natalie Portman’s performance is flawed in the same way as the movie itself. She is at times too perfect and too reminiscent of the glossy star of a teen movie. She is at her best in the emotionally charged scenes where she doesn’t seem so concerned with delivering the fetching smile and alluring toss of her hair. Too often in this movie, her beauty seems to get in the way.
Directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), Brothers is likely to garner some Oscar attention—-most notably for Maguire’s powerful performance. Sam Shepard as Hank Cahill, the Vietnam vet, who carries his own set of emotional war wounds, delivers an understated and believable performance as a father who overtly favors one son over the other. And Bailee Madison, as Isabelle, one of Sam and Grace’s daughters, is a talented young actress we are sure to see again. Brothers is based on Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier’s Brødre, released in Seattle in 2005.
In spite of its flaws, Brothers is a powerful statement of the extent of damage caused by war—beyond the battlefield—not only the damage to those who fight the war, but to those who wait for them and reunite with them back home. And at a time when the escalation of the war in Afghanistan is imminent, the movie reminds us that war destroys way more than the enemy.