[Screen It]

(2009) (Jake Gyllenhaal, Tobey Maguire) (R)

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Drama: When a Marine captain is reportedly killed in combat in Afghanistan, his family must contend with that and then his unexpected return, the disturbing ways in which he's changed, and the now altered family dynamics.
It's 2007 and Marine Captain Sam Cahill (TOBEY MAGUIRE) is about to be deployed to Afghanistan again, an order that hasn't been sitting well with his wife, Grace (NATALIE PORTMAN), or their two young daughters, Isabelle (BAILEE MADISON) and Maggie (TAYLOR GEARE). Yet, they're used to that and are proud of him, much like Sam's Vietnam vet father, Hank (SAM SHEPARD) and his wife, Elsie (MARE WINNINGHAM).

Most of them don't feel the same way about Sam's brother, Tommy (JAKE GYLLENHAAL), who's just gotten out of jail after serving time for robbery and has forever lived in Sam's shadow. He's forced to mature, however, when Sam's chopper is hit in combat and he's reported as having been killed. With Grace and her girls shell-shocked and grieving, Tommy steps in as the new father figure and soon adjusts well to that role.

Unbeknownst to them, Sam isn't dead but has been captured, along with Private Joe Willis (PATRICK FLUEGER), by armed locals in Afghanistan who then sell the two to a group of terrorists who torture them while demanding videotaped confessions of their wrongdoing.

Sam is eventually rescued and returns home, but his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- based on his treatment and what he was forced to do to survive -- prevents him from returning to his normal self. Paranoid and believing that Tommy and Grace are now a romantic item, Sam's behavior puts increasing stress on him and his family, all as his wife and brother try to help him through his difficulties.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
I've never been in the military and thus have thankfully avoided combat, but ask most any veteran of most any war and they'll tell you that the old saying that "war is hell" is quite accurate. It's a nasty business as it occurs, and the aftereffects often linger for a lifetime for those who managed to make it out alive, albeit often scathed physically and/or mentally.

The latter element has been the focus of most war pics that have come out since the recent and still ongoing U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. For better or worse, these sorts of movies never seem to light up the box office. Perhaps it's due to American moviegoers being tired of the real-life wars and having no urge to see them play out on the big screen.

Or it could be that they don't want to sit through what quite clearly look like depressing tales of emotional woe. Then again, it could be because those conflicts don't have specific defining moments such as those in The Civil War or WWII, and thus don't have the necessary action to balance out the heavy drama ("Saving Private Ryan" being a prime example of that).

Despite a talented director and a good cast, "Brothers" is likely to join the growing number of modern day war films that simply don't connect with mass audiences. It's certainly timely in that it's being released in the same week that President Obama announced a troop surge of some 30,000 additional troops for deployment in Afghanistan. Then again, that war has been going on so long that this film is actually a remake of the 2004 Danish film "Brodre" that covered the same subject matter in this same war.

As the title clearly suggests, it's the tale of male siblings and the effect that war and its lingering aftermath has on them and their family. It's decently done, but the fact that we've seen this sort of story so many times before, coupled with it not quite being as emotionally powerful and devastating as it could and should have been, means it doesn't stand out from the crowd of similar cinematic offerings.

Thankfully, it isn't forcibly preachy and doesn't appear to be an anti-war pic (at least not overtly, although I guess any number of zealots might read whatever they want into how the subject matter is handled). Instead, it's a family drama where the war is a huge catalyst that exacerbates the love as well as the direct and underlying competition between the brothers. One (played by Tobey Maguire) is the pride of the family, a Marine captain and family man. The other (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the proverbial black sheep, just released from prison and an embarrassing disappointment to their Vietnam vet father (Sam Shepard).

Not being familiar with the original movie, I don't know if the same plays out, but the thing that's supposed to be most interesting, telling and/or disturbing here is that the war creates a polar shift in the brothers. When Maguire's character is reportedly killed in combat, Gyllenhaal's has to step up to the plate to help his sister-in-law (a good Natalie Portman) raise her two young daughters (a terrific Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare). In short, he matures into their new father figure.

As luck would have it, however, the Marine isn't dead but has been captured (along with a private played by Patrick Flueger) by some local Afghans and then sold to some terrorists for various rounds of imprisonment and torture. When he's finally released, he comes home a changed man (understandably, based on what he experienced and was forced to do), and thus takes his brother's place as the sibling with problems. That switch, exacerbated by jealousy, paranoia and all of the nasty stuff that comes along with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder builds up to the big finale.

The performances range from solid to good, but director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot") and screenwriter David Benioff don't milk the subject matter for all it's worth. Of course, it doesn't help that the Afghanistan scenes feel somewhat shortchanged (although they're peppered with decidedly disturbing moments), while the grief on display by the supposed widow and her young daughters doesn't remain constant enough to be entirely believable.

That said, and as was the case with the young performers in "In America," Sheridan gets stellar work from the two girls here, and especially Madison. Her anger, fear and confusion regarding most everything about her father are utterly convincing and telling, all of which makes one wonder if the filmmakers should have zeroed in more on her character and that of her sister.

After all, so many films have focused on the returning vets and their related issues that the power of said material is somewhat diminished with each occurrence. Few, if any, however, have put the spotlight on the kids, and such an external view of them and/or a look out through their eyes at said material is far more insightful, powerful and disturbing than what flows forth from the adult A-listers doing their thing. Perhaps if the film had gone that route, it might have been better. As it stands, it's good, but the ironic thing is that the best moments in "Brothers" have to do with the young sisters in it. The film rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed December 1, 2009 / Posted December 4, 2009

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