[4 December 2009]

By Cynthia Fuchs

PopMatters Film and TV Editor

They Only Shoot the Bad Guys

Today, our people are weary of war ... But we cannot ignore reality. The extremists continue to target innocent people and sow destruction across continents. From the remote mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, they plot future attacks.
Hillary Clinton, 3 December 2009

After I got back from Nam, you know I just couldn’t talk to your mother.
—Hank (Sam Shepard)

The war in Afghanistan is bad. If this week’s announcement of U.S. escalation hasn’t made this point clear, Brothers leaves no doubt. The war isn’t only bad for the usual reasons—the hardships of living in a war zone, the pain suffered by families, and the repetition of all this via multiple deployments—it’s also bad because the enemy is utterly and unspeakably monstrous.

Billed as a remake of Susanne Bier’s 2005 Brødre (also about the war in Afghanistan), Jim Sheridan’s intermittently effective melodrama lifts also from The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, and any other movie that collapses the loss of U.S. innocence (or idealism, or heroism, or moral high ground) onto contact with a fearful and essentially demonic other. In this case that other is the Taliban, or men with beards and turbans so intent on teaching lessons to imperialist dogs that they’ll abuse their own children to get it done. 

Here the primary victim is Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a decent young family man whose repeatedly declared dedication to “my men” supercedes all else. His stiff resolve is extolled by his alcoholic Vietnam war veteran dad Hank (Sam Shepard, his frame lean and sagging, his face bloated). Though Sam also pronounces love for “my girls,” wife Grace (Natalie Portman) and adorable daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), it’s plain that he’s become used to soldiering, that it “almost feels like home” in the field. (He does, for the record, worry about this feeling and likely pathology it signals, but not enough to look into it.)

Just before he leaves for his fourth tour in Afghanistan, Sam picks up his brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) from prison, where he’s served time for trying to rob a bank. Hank’s disapproval of Tommy is palpable, as is Tommy’s resentment of Sam. Glowering at Tommy across the farewell dinner table, Hank asserts, “Every family’s got their own set of problems.” Tommy takes the bait, nodding “Sure do,” and so initiating a manly meltdown that indicates this family’s problems are less their own than a tangle of good-son-bad-son-worse-father clichés.  It can be no surprise that the next couple of scenes show how Sam feels more secure in the desert—or at least in his vehicles that keep him separate from the desert. When his chopper goes down, his sense of self is simultaneously challenged and reconfirmed.

While Grace and his family are informed that Sam is dead (not so much moving on as mourning righteously), crosscut scenes reveal that the captain and one his men, Pvt. Joe Willis (Patrick Flueger), are taken prisoner and tortured. Though Sam is stoic and strong, instructing the private to give keep quiet no matter what injuries he suffers, the Afghans are implacably evil, the leader Yusuf (Omid Abtahi) especially keen on punishing Sam. Meantime, Grace is slowly moved by Tommy’s generosity and—so predictably—his warm attention to the children. By the time Sam is rescued, they have formed a sweet-seeming unit, mostly chastely supportive and highly conscious of the moral transgression of their mutual affection. 

The primary metaphor for this transgression-and-affection is Grace’s kitchen, unfinished when Sam leaves for war and completed by Tommy and a squad of very pleasant, happily joking buddies—all good with the children, of course. As Grace is won over by the men, the remodeled space, and especially Tommy, who is at once tragic and in need of rescue (he gets drunk and feels bad about his crime), as well as generically dreamboaty (he takes the family ice-skating). The nifty new cupboards and shiny stove represent Tommy’s full-on devotion to the family, opposed to Sam’s distraction by masculine self-definition, a device by which the film makes Grace’s sort-of-betrayal okay. It’s all so complicated, Brothers submits, with everyone’s needs so different and at odds.

Indeed, the only difference that is not complicated is that embodied by the Afghans, who not only all look alike, but also act out a collective cruelty. Where the Americans act out their emotional damage and fret over even potential emotional infractions (and the little girls, especially Izzy, make heartbreaking efforts to love their dad even though Tommy is so very much nicer), the Afghan soldiers—including a boy identified as a nephew—are resolutely brutal, and not a little clever in getting the Americans to break down. Sam’s collapse is not only simplistic, but also neglects to note even one reason why the “enemy” would be so mad and mean. These others appear just made that way, without wives, daughters or kitchens.

“What did they do to you?” asks, Grace, a question Sam is unable even to comprehend. But the film suggests it’s a fundamental question, that if Sam can only answer it, and so reject his father’s legacy of silence and rage, he might be “free,” or at least more like his nice-guy brother. Such moments indicate that the film has more on its mind than the manifest ethnocentrism and racism in its depictions of Sam’s tormenters. All the men in Afghanistan—native and invasive—are struggling to survive, to make order of rocky chaos. But the oppositions of girls and boys, domesticity and wildness, compassion and brutality reduce these fundamental efforts to platitudes.

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