Brothers (and Sister-in-Law)

BrothersIn terms of military actualities, the set-up that drives the action of the 2009 film Brothers is intriguing, if not preposterous. On his fourth tour overseas, US Marine Captain Sam Cahill and Private Joe Willis are the only survivors when their helicopter is shot down by the Taliban. Both are quickly taken prisoner, but the Marines unwittingly declare Captain Cahill and Private Willis dead, leaving their wives in grief and despair. The peremptory announcement seems like an egregious breach of military protocol, which would be loathe to declare service members dead in the absence of absolute proof, but is necessary in terms of the plot as it unfolds. Then, while in captivity, Captain Cahill cracks and on orders of the Taliban bludgeons Private Willis to death. This seems excessive, too, not just in terms of what might actually happen but in terms of pinpointing a reason why Captain Cahill is so tormented by guilt when he is rescued and returns home. Such a deed would per force break almost any man, making any semblance of mental equilibrium and re-socialization fraught forever after.

The thing is, it doesn’t take so much to leave soldiers wracked by guilt for their failings while at war; many a less dramatic scenario would do the job, while leaving a fighting chance that their spouses and loved ones can bring them back to health and happiness.

In terms of portrayal of military types and the emotional circuitry that binds Captain Cahill, his wife Grace, and Captain Cahill’s brother Tommy, Brothers is much surer. It helps that Hollywood superstars Tobey Maguire, Natalie Portman, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Sam Cahill, Grace Cahill, and Tommy Cahill, respectively, are on top of their games, as are esteemed actors Sam Shepard and Carey Mulligan in smaller roles. Director Jim Sheridan is also a pro, and though there is nothing fancy-dancy about the movie artistry, he tells the story intelligently and compellingly.

Playing a Marine captain, Maguire seems to fulfill the great description of author John Renehan of many military officers as “nerds made good.” Somewhat wimpy in demeanor and too uptight and by-the-book to be a great leader of men (dare I say more Peter Parker than Spider-Man?), he ultimately is not up to the admittedly extraordinary demands placed on him. His wife Grace is a beauty, but she too seems coiled in on herself, admirably protective of her husband, two kids, and station-in-life without perceiving that she has sacrificed a great deal of her vitality and potential to make it all work. Emotional vulnerable in the days after learning that her husband has supposedly died, she is more susceptible than she realizes to the charms of Sam’s black-sheep brother Tommy, a bigger, brawnier, and bolder version of Sam. Tommy and Grace don’t sleep together, but they almost do, and the chemistry is definitely there. When Sam returns from Afghanistan, he not only is roiled by guilt over Private Willis’ death, he recognizes in two seconds that his wife and brother are connected in a way they weren’t before his deployment, which further wrecks his relationship with Grace.

As a family-romance/domestic-drama clothed in war-film garb, Brothers takes smart aim at the troubled veteran motif and intensifies it by setting it within the context of a military family. Brothers has a lot in common with Thank You For Your Service, a 2017 film that also portrays a sensible, caring wife struggling to deal with a husband fucked-up by deployment. But even more so than Thank You For Your Service, Grace’s mixed feelings and actions resemble Mary’s, the lead in Elliot Ackerman’s novel Waiting for Eden. I write about Thank You For Your Service here, and Waiting for Eden here, and I invite you especially to read or reread the post on Waiting for Eden. The novel was very generative of my own thoughts regarding military marriages and romantic triangles, in ways that reflect directly on Grace’s dilemma in Brothers. In a movie nominally about male siblings, the wife/sister-in-law’s tribulations are equally fascinating

Brothers trailer

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