Brothers and Arms 

brothers.jpg

Brothers
Directed by Jim Sheridan

Studio executives probably restrained themselves from exchanging fist pumps over Obama's request for an additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan, but there's no doubt that this week's news raised the awards-season profile of Brothers, a film that wrassles with the homefront aftershocks of the Good War. Which is simply to say that the film's relevance to our current situation—or to any other situation—has more to do with external circumstances than with any of its own attributes. (The improbability of an accompanying box-office surge, incidentally, can be attributed, as always, partly to moviegoers' self-applied blinders, and partly to their understandable resistance to Hollywood's standard tactic of bringing about political catharsis through overdetermined melodrama.)

Brødre, Danish director Susanne Bier's handheld, desaturated 2004 original, draped itself in Dogme sackcloth, but got at the trauma of war via hairpin plot contrivance and copious of plate-smashing. Which is to say that an American remake was even more inevitable than usual. (Bier herself was last seen directing a Halle Berry vehicle.) This story, of the good son who serves his country and the black sheep who grows into his house shoes when his older sibling is presumed dead, was always ideally suited to a seasoned tearjerker like Sheridan.

Screenwriter David Benioff adds a 'Nam vet father (Sam Shepard), to hammer home the all-American archetypes—he's "Sir" to his boys, one of whom lived up to dad's expectations, one of whom fled them. Tobey Maguire is Sam, the quarterback married to Grace, the cheerleader (Natalie Portman), with the split-level and the two little girls (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare); Jake Gyllenhaal, with neck tattoo, is Uncle Tommy, who finishes up his stint for a bank holdup just before his older brother heads out for another tour. (People still rob banks?)

Over There, Sam is quickly shot down, and Sheridan stages the uniformed-messenger-at-the-door scene with admirable restraint (to suggest that a crossover appearance by Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson would have been appropriate is probably unfair to the motives of both Brothers and The Messenger). While his family buries an empty casket, Maguire is captured by the Taliban, and forced to make good on the promise made in his early voiceover, when he says "I would do anything to get back to" his wife and family (it's like he knew that some screenwriter would make him the one solider in the entire armed services who actually has a choice in the matter). Back on the range, Portman works for our sympathy (just because she tears up beautifully doesn't mean that grief is all she should have been given the opportunity to feel), while Tommy, after quickly hurdling his evident alcoholism, finds redemption through home-improvement and ice skating montage with the girls. From whom, it should be said, Sheridan coaxes crucially natural performances—as he did with the real-life sisters at the throbbing heart of his In America, probably the best straight weepie of this decade. Unlike Paddy Considine and Samantha Morton there, though, these grown-ups don't feel like it.

Maguire and Portman are much younger than Ulrich Thomsen and Connie Nielsen, who originated their roles (Gyllenhaal is closer, in age and bad-boy stubble, to Nikolaj Lie Kaas). And it shows, particularly during during Maguire's PTSD tweakshow, which dominates the third act. (The fault is partly the writing, basically a bunch of notes taken at the Sissy Spacek School for Kitchen Destruction—it's impossible to think of it as anything other than the "big scene." This was true in 2004, too, but when that scene happens in a Danish movie it's easier to at least pay attention, and not drift off into handicapping the Oscar race). Compared to the live-experienced, pore-close template performances—even within the original's dramatic maelstrom—these are so clearly American golden boys and girls playing dress-up. (In the Loop got at it much better with a single one-liner : "They're all kids in Washington. It's like Bugsy Malone, but with real guns.") It's less like a political statement about the tragic youthfulness and inexperience of the people we're sending off to die, and more like a Brechtian distancing device. It's hard not to feel like Brothers has something essentially true to say about survivor guilt—it's just hard to hear exactly what, with all the distortion coming through the megaphone.

Opens December 4

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