Roger Ebert Review

by Roger Ebert Sun-Times
March 11, 2009

Jake and Isaac RademacherI’ve been waiting for this film since the early days of the war in Iraq. “Brothers at War” is an honest, on-the-ground documentary about the lives of Americans fighting there. It has no spin. It’s not left or right. I don’t recall if it even mentions President Bush. It’s not pro or anti-war, although obviously the two brothers fighting there support it. It is simply about men and women.

The film is about the men in the Rademacher family from Downstate Decatur. Jake, the oldest, always planned to go into the military, but didn’t make it into West Point and found himself as an actor. Isaac, the next, graduated top of his class at West Point and married his classmate Jenny. Joe, next in line, enlisted and was top of his class at Army Ranger school. The brothers were very close growing up, but Jake sensed a distance growing as they came home on leave. He felt he could never know their experience.

What Jake decided to do was visit them in Iraq and film a documentary of them at work — easier, because Sgt. Joe was assigned to Capt. Isaac’s unit. This sounds simple enough, but it involved investment, logistical problems and danger under fire. The result is a film that benefits from an inside view, as Jake is attached to Isaac’s group and follows them for extended periods under fire in the Sunni Triangle and on patrol on the Syrian border. It is clear that the brothers are expert soldiers.

But this is not a war film. It is a life film, and its scenes filmed at home are no less powerful than those filmed in Iraq. Jenny Rademacher served in Kuwait and elsewhere, then has their child. Isaac is deployed to Iraq soon after, and when he returns home, it’s to a daughter who has never met him. Jake films the homecomings and departures of both brothers, attends family gatherings and watches Isaac as he trains troops of the Iraqi army. The filmmakers are often under fire, and a man is killed on one mission by a roadside bomb.

Jake’s access gives him access to many moments of the kind you never see on the news. Nicknamed “Hollywood” and such an accustomed daily sight that soldiers are not self-conscious around his camera, he listens in on small talk, shop talk and gab sessions. He watches during meals. He walks along on a door-to-door operation. He looks at houses and roadsides in a way that recognizes they may harbor his death. He gives us a stark idea of the heat, the dust, the desolate landscape.

I’ve reviewed many documentaries about Iraq. All of them have been anti-war. “Why don’t you ever review a pro-war documentary?” readers have asked me. The answer is simple: There haven’t been any. There still aren’t, because no one in this film argues in favor of the war — or against it, either. What you hear is guarded optimism, pride in the work, loyalty to the service. This is deep patriotism. It involves risking your life for your country out of a sense of duty.

Every time he saw Isaac or Joe deployed, Jake says, he wondered if he would ever see them again. In filming his documentary, he feels he has walked a little way in their shoes. As is often the case among men, the brothers leave these things unspoken. But now Jake sees their war as more of a reality and less of an abstraction. He invites his audience to do the same.

AARP Review by Bill Newcott

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.