Monday, May 31, 2010

Brothers -- surviving war

Director: Jim Sheridan, 2009. (R)

"I don't know who said 'only the dead have seen the end of war'. I have seen the end of war. The question is: can I live again?" When Sam Cahill says this it pretty much sums up this movie. Not so much an antiwar film, as some critics have claimed, Sheridan's movie explores the effects of war on soldiers and their families. It explores the bonds between brothers.

Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) has it all. A former high school football star, he married his cheerleader sweetheart Grace (Natalie Portman, The Phantom Menace), and has two little girls at home. In contrast, his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal, Rendition) is a loser, and is just getting out of prison for armed robbery. They could not be more different. But they are tied together by blood.

The early scenes emphasize the closeness of these brothers. Life may have dealt them diametrically opposite hands, but their relationship keeps them together. It is Sam who goes to pick up Tommy when he is released from prison. Brothers are meant to be close: "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity" (Prov. 17:17). This is not always so, but when they are something special is present.

A recent movie, Armored, presented a view of brotherhood of men. But there, the brotherhood was fraternal and ultimately a fraud, destroyed by greed. Here, the brotherhood is familial and upheld, even through trials that should have destroyed it.

Sam is also a Captain in the US Marines. Having already made one tour in Afghanistan, he is being sent back with his troops for a second. While there this time, his helicopter is shot down and he is amongst the fallen, presumed dead. In actuality, he and a fellow Marine private are captured and held prisoner by the Taliban in the mountain caves. While his family back home grieve his loss he is trying to preserve his life and sanity.

As the film moves between the US and Afghanistan, we see Tommy grow up and Grace move on. The "death" of his brother left him wounded and ready to grow up. He recognizes the life his brother had and sees it as something he has missed out on. He begins to establish a relationship with Grace and his nieces. Their improving relationship is juxtaposed with Sam's declining experience. When his captors begin torturing him, the stakes grow until Sam is forced to endure horrors unbearable and to do the unthinkable. When he is eventually rescued and returns home a hero, he is not the same man who left these shores months before.

Brothers is a remake of a 2004 Danish film, Brødre, that follows the same storyline. What makes this version more than just a sentimental Hallmark film is the strength of acting of the three principals. Maguire and Gyllenhaal look like they could be brothers, and they bring a maturity to their roles, not really seen before. Portman, too, is believable as a woman trying to make sense out of loss. They present a powerful picture of change.

The change in the two brothers is highlighted by a contrasting pair of dinner table scenes. Early in the film, Sam's family are eating with his father, Hank (Sam Shepard) and stepmom Isabelle (Bailee Madison), and Tommy, fresh out of prison. Tension fills the air as Tommy and Hank verbally spar until sparks fly and Hank leaves the room. Later, when Sam is back from Afghanistan, a similar dinner has Tommy at ease at the table but Sam stressed out by his daughter playing with a balloon. One will explode and it is not the balloon. At this meal, it is Sam who flies out of the room. As well as contrasting the changes in the two, it also underscores how often dysfunctional family dynamics emerge around dinners, sometimes the only time everyone gets together.

Furthermore, these scenes, especially the first, identifies one of the issues in the Cahill family: favoritism. The favoritism of the father has pushed Tommy away. A former marine himself who saw combat and horror in Nam, Hank thinks the world of Sam and thinks nothing of Tommy. Sam's competitiveness and career has won him this love, while, it seems, Tommy has rebelled against his father by defying authority, even becoming a felon.

Favoritism is a particularly nasty sin. It divides families, where love should be uniting them. It creates deep wounds that scar emotionally and psychologically. In the Old Testament, Joseph's father Jacob favored him over his brothers, giving him the prized multi-colored coat (Gen. 37:3). In their jealousy, his brothers sold him into slavery to push him out of their family (Gen. 37:28). Here, the favoritism of the father brought the two brothers closer but pushed Tommy out of the family in other ways.

Interestingly, Hank's favoritism is partly due to shared experience. Both he and Sam have seen the hell of war and returned. Both came back changed. Demons haunt them. Both turned inward in silence. One scene has Hank, realizing Sam has been traumatized, telling Sam he can talk to him about Afghanistan at any time; this from a person that does not talk about anything!

Brothers.jpg Brothers image   by bambidahlIt is the horrors of war and torture that we come back to, though. Several of the scenes in Afghanistan are intense and brutal, gripping the viewer by the throat and choking back the emotions. When we send young men and women to battle, even the modern-day guerrilla or terrorist warfare, they will face things that they may not be able to handle. War is hell. But sometimes war is necessary. Brothers does not dispute this. But it does question how to survive war. The only way to survive may be to detach emotionally and compartmentalize. It is no wonder that veterans returning from these places have a tough time fitting back into normal society.

By the end, we realize Sam has seen the end of war. But the answer to his question of whether he can live again, is in his own hands. It is his choice.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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