by Bill Newcott
March 9, 2009
You can tell a movie is really good when it makes you forget every other film in its genre. So, if only for brief moments, last year Mamma Mia! became for me the greatest film musical ever, Slumdog Millionaire was the best rags-to-riches story, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button ranked as the top film about a baby who ages backwards (oh, wait, it still holds that position).
That’s why I can state categorically that the new documentary Brothers at War is hands down the best war movie—documentary or fictional—ever made. So what if temporary amnesia wiped away all conscious memory of the barrel-chested heroism of Sands of Iwo Jima and the raving antiheroes of Apocalypse Now. Populated with unforgettable characters, shot with edgy assurance by first-time director Jake Rademacher, Brothers at War immerses us in the Iraq war experience with an intimacy born not only of technical and artistic achievement, but also of a profound personal connection with the soldiers in the field.
Director Rademacher, you see, has two brothers—both of whom happen to be fighting in Iraq. Isaac and Joe are a couple of all-American GI Joes; Jake is, by comparison, something of a film school nerd. When we see them all together at a family function, it’s clear that although the three are loving brothers, only two also share membership in a separate brotherhood. As odd man out, Rademacher decides to go to Iraq, embedded as a documentarian. Ostensibly, he’s there to cover the war from the inside. In his heart, he’s trying to understand what it is that makes his brothers so different from him.
In Iraq, Rademacher nervously starts heading out on missions. We meet his brothers’ buddies—guys with nicknames like Mongo (the commanding officer dubs Rademacher “Hollywood”). There’s a tense patrol along the Syrian border. Later, hunkered down with a team of snipers in the Sunni Triangle, Rademacher lets his camera roll while the riflemen put distant figures in their crosshairs—and hope against hope they’ll get the order to pull the trigger. “Everyone wants a kill,” says one. Still, in the movie’s single most devastating moment, one sniper, his boyish face filling the screen, tells of the day he very nearly blew the head off a child carrying a gun that turned out to be a toy. For the rest of his life, he confesses, his worst memory of Iraq will be the kid he didn’t kill.
The deadly drudgery of war takes up much of the film: The soldiers trudge across the countryside seeking enemy combatants, occasionally setting a suspicious car or truck ablaze, questioning the locals, then moving on. Through it all, the Americans patiently—and sometimes not so patiently—try to train their Iraqi comrades to take over the fight. At times it seems a futile task. The language barrier alone causes repeated delays and misunderstandings that could prove lethal.
Finally, Rademacher finds himself dodging bullets in a full-fledged firefight. Side by side, the American and Iraqi soldiers hurl themselves into the ditch along a highway, aiming their rifles at an enemy that seems invisible. Rademacher’s single camera seems to be everywhere, swinging wildly, fortuitously finding soldiers at the precise moments when they must make the snap life-or-death decisions that blend together in the fog of war. Suddenly, it’s all over. Rademacher’s camera dashes up the road, revealing some seriously injured Iraqis. But nobody on our side dies today and later, when the American commander praises the Iraqis for their professionalism and courage, the camera focuses on their faces—proud of their accomplishment, determined to make this victory stick.
Executive-produced by actor Gary Sinise, an outspoken supporter of American soldiers and their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Brothers at War serves as a valuable reminder. No matter how fiercely the debate over the wars rages at home, in those desert and mountain outposts, a singular focus never wavers: Kill the bad guys; give the good guys a chance to succeed.
In the end, Rademacher feels he knows his brothers a lot better. They in turn feel their civilian sibling has at least tried to understand who they are. And we come away, silently and reverently, awed by the mystery of such casual courage.