Thursday, March 19, 2009

Seeing Is Believing

The documentary film follows Jake Rademacher in his directorial debut as he sets out to understand the experience, sacrifice, and motivation of his two brothers serving in Iraq. Unprecedented access to US and Iraqi combat units take Jake behind the camouflage curtain with secret reconnaissance troops on the Syrian border, into sniper "hide sites" in the Sunni Triangle, through raging machine gun battles with the Iraqi Army in Brothers At War.

The Iraq war has a cameo in Brothers at War, a documentary shot mostly in combat zones with its scope trained squarely on its vain, loving, irritating, restless, impassioned, bonkers director Jake Rademacher, a civilian who rushes to the front lines to show his younger brothers (both soldiers) that he, too, can be in the thick of things. Yes, there are IEDs and bullets and bleeding Iraqis, but that's all secondary to Rademacher's "Wow, look at me in this flak jacket!" experience. His poor parents, with three sons to worry about now. But once you get past the premise, and Rademacher's bothersome screen presence, Brothers at War is actually a one-of-a-kind documentary, a chronicle not of war but of disconnect between brothers. It's a drama about sibling rivalry and reconciliation that just happens to be filmed under extremely dangerous circumstances. The Rademachers are a family of four boys and two girls raised in Decatur, Ill. Jake, the oldest, always wanted to be a soldier but didn't get in to West Point. He became an actor instead. Joe and Isaac both joined the Army, serving in the same unit, developing a strong bond with each other and the military. Intent on understanding his brothers and "the heart of the American soldier," Jake picks up a camera and jets to northern Iraq. It feels a little self-serving at first, like the only way the actor could get a film job was to make his own documentary with himself as the star. Jake rolls into Mosul and the first thing he says to Isaac is "I told you I'd [bleeping] make it," as if being in Iraq proves that he's as much of a "man" as his brothers. Jake suits up, puts on his prescription sunglasses, sweats through his shirts, hangs with the battalion and travels with a unit to the dusty, desolate Syrian border, where he sits, waits, watches and talks to soldiers about why they're there. The answer? Because they love their country, most say. One young soldier appears stumped by the question. Rather than delve into this uncertainty, into the "heart of the American soldier," Jake moves along in his own quest for his brothers' acceptance, preferring to paste his footage together with cloying music and wide shots of himself silhouetted on a dune, looking to the horizon, contemplating his experience. But when the camera is not on him, Brothers of War makes for a nice slice of life from two fronts: the war, and an American family that is responding to it in myriad, mysterious ways. After Jake returns home, Isaac and Joe still give off a vibe that seems to say, "You'll never understand what we go through." So Jake returns for a second tour of Iraq, this time to experience combat. Doubly bonkers, right? Or doubly brave? Probably both. Jake wanted to see the war, so he did. It's fascinating and frustrating, both his desperation to share in the experience and his brothers' implacability. There are much better Iraq documentaries than this one but Brothers at War does distinguish itself by peering out over the emotional chasm between soldiers and the families they come home to. That the film does not plunge into the chasm is mostly beside the point. Any cinematic perspective on the war adds something to the collective experience, even if that something is not nearly as moving, educational or revelatory as we'd like it to be. This gets a 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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