Thursday, May 07, 2009

Now Opening in New York: Brothers at War

How effective is Jake Rademacher’s debut documentary about his brothers serving in the Iraq War? After they screened the film, Gary Sinise agreed to sign-on as an executive producer and John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting was inspired to write a song based on its central characters. While refraining from taking a pro or con position on the war, Rademacher’s Brothers at War (trailer here) is a deeply personal and humane examination of the American soldiers fighting in Iraq, and the impact of their service on the families they left behind, which finally plays in New York this Friday, following its targeted opening in March.

With two younger brothers serving in Iraq, the political has become the personal for actor Jake Rademacher. Wanting to better understand their deliberate decision to serve in a time of war, Rademacher went to Iraq with a bare-bones camera crew to answer the Capra-esque question of why they fight. Yet, Brothers is first and foremost about family, with all else being secondary.

Though his youngest brother Sgt. Joe Rademacher is home between deployments when the filmmaker Rademacher arrives in Iraq, the middle brother, Capt. Isaac Rademacher, is happy to embed him on missions that will give him a representative taste of the Iraqi War experience. If not directly in harm’s way, Rademacher was certainly within harm’s extended reach, eventually filming a live fire fight and an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) attack. When the Captain is unexpectedly transferred to the states for special training, the intrepid director finds himself in the unlikely position of being the only Rademacher brother then in the war zone.

Rademacher’s film can honestly be called even-handed, resisting blanket assumptions about the state of Iraq and the men serving there. Some regions of the country are shown to still be quite dangerous, while others appear quite safe. We hear the no-nonsense Staff Sgt. in charge of training Iraqi troops praise their performance under fire, but ambushes and IEDs remain a fact of life.

Many soldiers do indeed express eloquent patriotism when asked about their mission, like Spc. Christopher Mackay, who tells Rademacher matter-of-factly: “I’d give my life for America any day. Wouldn’t think twice.” However, another enlisted man is more ambivalent on the mission and conflicted about his pending re-enlistment deadline. Still, he agrees with his father’s assessment that “the caliber of the person you’re going to be working with in the military is better than the caliber of the person you’re going to meet ninety percent of the time anywhere else.”

At times, Brothers packs a real emotional punch. Surprisingly, Rademacher’s most moving interview is not with a serviceman, but with Ali, an Iraqi translator working with the troops. He has lost family, including a brother, to the insurgents in retaliation for helping the American forces, but he still expresses idealism and hope for the future.

Brothers is neither rah-rah boosterism or propaganda of any stripe, but honest filmmaking. The men serving with the Rademachers are allowed to speak for themselves, unfiltered by any editorial preconceptions. Rademacher is also brutally honest depicting his own fraternal relations, showing the open tensions between him and his youngest brother. Throughout it all, viewers will become heavily invested in the Rademacher brothers as characters in a very human drama. Truthful and complex, Brothers is a very compelling documentary that should not be dismissed by partisans on either side of the war debate. It finally opens this Friday in the City at the Loews Village 7 (11th Street and Third Ave.).

Photo: Sam Harriston / Samuel Goldwyn Films