by Stephen Hunter
March 15, 2009
It’s one of those big, achievement-oriented families, a doctor’s family, full of healthy kids who work hard and expect to do well and go into the world well-armored with love and confidence, motivated by concepts like “duty” and “proof of manhood.” Maybe that’s why four of the five brothers are Eagle Scouts.
Hmmm, they don’t seem to make movies about those kinds of families much these days, perhaps on the Tolstoyan principle that all happy families are alike and unhappy families are all different, which perhaps explains why the unhappies appeal to storytellers.
If anyone was going to make a movie about the Rademachers, it could only be another Rademacher. And that’s why Jake Rademacher was in Washington one day recently discussing the unusual thing he has begotten. His film, “Brothers at War” has finally debuted after a long and vibrant life at independent film festivals.
The movie is so interesting: A documentary, it seems to be about the war in Iraq, one of those rare, let’s-get-the-good-news-out-about-the-troops enterprises. It goes places most guys with cameras don’t: into a sniper hide, on a long-range border recon and finally into the center of that oh-so-common transaction known as a firefight. Jake took incoming, but luckily the incoming didn’t take him.
It’s also about the true culture of the military: a kind of frat-boy existence, except that few frat boys keep cocked and locked M4 carbines strapped to their bunks and few frat boys face the possibility of death on a day-to-day basis. But like frat boys, the off-duty uniform devolves to cutoffs, flip-flops, a jumbo-size tee, a baseball cap worn backward and a can of beer in the right hand.
All that is there, in spades. But finally the true subject of the film is not Army culture but Rademacher culture, especially the somewhat twisted relations between brothers, and how it drives them to do what they think is necessary but not necessarily sensible. Like combat.
So it’s a war movie. It’s a family movie. In some sense, it’s a political movie. But to see how “Brothers at War” exists, one must begin with Jake, 33, with a spritz of red hair curling into vinelike tendrils and the enthusiasm of a rug merchant who could sell Bibles in Baghdad. He’s got that go-getter, I-will-not-fail-or-quit-or-back-off thing going that so many of the world’s winners seem to effortlessly boast.
Maybe it’s in the genes. As one of five brothers and two sisters growing up prosperous and secure in Decatur, Ill., in what seems like an idealized American childhood, under the benevolent dictatorship of Dennis J. Rademacher, a family practitioner who clearly practiced family at home until he got it right and insisted that each of his kids try every possible thing, from sports to music, before making a choice, after which he backed them unconditionally.
“Our parents were pushing us to find out what we were good at. You got a couple of years to look around but then you’ve got to chose. And the only way to find out is to do it.”
So that’s how Jake grew up, wrestling with his smaller roommate, Isaac, getting good grades and all-around high marks; his dream, for a long time, was to be a soldier. When physical problems kept him from West Point, he set off to college (Notre Dame) for a degree in business, seemingly on the way to a square’s life of success. But after a summer internship with a Chicago corporation, he recalls “feeling empty inside. I’d done well, everyone viewed it as a success, but it just wasn’t for me, I was beginning to realize.”
Jake deviated from that path his junior year, which he spent in Dublin. That’s when he decided to succumb to the Irish disease of proud, lyric words boldly spoken. Poet? Politico? Publican? Well, close: actor.
“I knew: This is what I wanted to do.”
As might be imagined, things at home didn’t go smoothly regarding his new career path.
“They . . . felt ill-equipped to give me advice as an actor.”
But Jake brought his Rademacher drive and his business school organization to the usually more vaporous demands of the craft. Failure? Never occurred to him. He just felt, as he had felt in soccer or advanced accounting theory that he had to exceed his past performance.
He went back to South Bend, switched majors (to English with an emphasis on drama) and threw himself on the boards, college-style. After graduation (cum laude) he went to Chicago and soon started working. In one year as a professional actor in Chicago he was in 12 productions, spending more than 1,000 hours onstage. The next step, obviously, was L.A.
“I walked into 88 agencies with headshots and a full résumé and couldn’t get an audition. I couldn’t get anyone to care.”
But his reaction to finding work hard to come by wasn’t anger or depression, and certainly not self-doubt; it was amazement.
It astonished him that he couldn’t find work right away, couldn’t even get into auditions, that the system seemed so closed off to outsiders. He says that now, knowing that he’s no longer an outsider, after friends with connections — can there be another way? — helped him find work: He became the voice of Budweiser American Ale.
So one wonders: What would the next career step be? A series? Maybe an independent film. Possibly an on-camera commercial gig, establishing charm, charisma, sexiness. But who would say: I know! I’m going to Iraq!
Well, there are several levels in play here.
Jake understood that to succeed in Hollywood he had to be a self-starter, and make something happen to stand out from all the other good-looking, talented boys and girls who roll in from the Midwest with packets of reviews and headshots.
So Jake was looking for something outside the mold.
The nominal story, however, is that he was sitting and talking to his brother Isaac — the little kid he roomed with and used to pound. Isaac had grown up and become everything Jake once dreamed of: Airborne ranger, paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, combat vet, West Point grad, married to another West Point grad. Plus, the blond Isaac has put in his gym time and muscled way, way up. If slender Jake had a go at him, he’d end up thrown through a wall or something.
The two were talking, and Jake wanted to know what’s really going on over there. Isaac said no one really knows what’s really going on about schools being built, sewers laid and municipal councils founded. Jake thought that would be a good subject for a doc, plus it would indulge his own still unsatiated war-dog hunger.
But Joe may be the third level of the motivation. Joe is younger brother to both Isaac and Jake and he’s an airborne sniper. Always wanted to be in the stuff. Had the soldier bug bad and followed it totally. Coupla tours, slated to go back. It’s not said, but you understand the dynamic of the family: Isaac’s too close to Jake to judge and never will or even could, but Joe’s really not all that impressed with Jake and his “success” in the talking beer bottle world.
“While I believe in the power of acting to reveal truth and see it as a noble calling, on the other hand, here are my two brothers risking everything for their country and I’m auditioning for soap commercials,” Jake said. “So maybe yes, I did have something to prove.”
What follows is a tale of Jake’s indomitability. He decided to make the movie, to tell the world, and to show his brothers, especially his younger one. A lot of what happened between the decision and the arrival is quite tedious, to be frank: finding producers, raising money (a lot of Decatur money was involved), finding an agent, getting Army permission to embed (“It was harder to get the Army to agree than to get signed up with William Morris,” Jake remembered), various setbacks, and then, there’s Jake, circling over Baghdad with a luggage full of camera stuff, in an Air Force transport.
His journey is essentially to a far province of that particular sandbox in hell, where he joins up with brother Isaac, by now a battalion S-5 (intelligence officer) whose duty is to monitor the border via long-range patrols. Jake talks his way aboard one, and we spend five days of trailer-park living under the hot Iraqi sun, in hopes of seeing human termites sneak across the border to be flitted away by air or artillery support. The bad part is because the soldiers are out there in the wide lonesome, they themselves can be bounced at any second. But the bounce never comes.
Both he and Isaac make it home alive but Joe, who at 23 was one of the Army’s youngest staff sergeants, wasn’t impressed.
“I was expecting him to be impressed,” Jake says. “He wasn’t. He finally said to me: ‘You didn’t do enough.’ ”
Now, stop and think about this. What more does a guy have to do? He went to the frackin’ war and took his chances on the farthest tip of the farthest spear. But Joe, one of those fellows who reaches judgment and can’t be dissuaded, refuses to grant Jake absolution from his guilt.
So Jake goes back. No brother, nothing but a camera and an ability to bond with soldiers and an evident carte blanche to follow the action. This time, he’s almost luckier. He links up with charismatic Marine Gunnery Sgt. Edward Allier, all guile and sinew and smarts and comedy and battle hunger, who is “advising” (i.e., from way out front) a platoon of Iraqi soldiers. And so Jake gets what he wants, and by the conventions of narrative, so do we: the real McCoy with a fleet of stuff blurring through the air at 2,000 feet per second and kicking up big mean geysers in the sand where it lands, or blowing big mean holes in people if they don’t get out of the way. Some of the Iraqis don’t. So it goes in the sandbox, though usually a camera isn’t around to chronicle the dying.
Well, Jake may get the attention he wants and a promotion from the voice of a beer. But maybe that’s not what’s important to him. Maybe getting Joe off his case was, enough to run risk of death — four embeds with combat units — when he could have been waiting to audition. They don’t make them like that anymore. Or maybe they do and we just don’t hear about it.