Saturday, April 10, 2010

War is Kind -- Reflections on "Brothers"

Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
Because your father tumbles in the yellow trenches,
Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
Do not weep.
War is kind.
--Stephen Crane
I think most of us consider war a necessary evil. It's aim is both intrinsic to and contradictory to our human nature. On one side we desire peace and harmony, yet we don't want to stop at anything until we can get what we want, no matter what that is. War has often been waged for selfish reasons -- the desire to have more land and resources -- but occassionally is fought for altruistic reasons as well. In the aftermath of war, though, people are always left wounded or dead, either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Seldom does much good come from it.

In the movie Brothers, a remake of a Scandanavian film called BrØdere, a nursing student named Tina, whom we meet only once at a child's birthday party, says it best: "Everyone needs someone to listen to them...No one can be trained to watch someone die." While she is talking exclusively about soldiers, this can be extended to their families as well, who are sometimes in over their heads when dealing with the feelings associated with sending one of their own off to fight.

Jim Sheridan, the director of Brothers, is no stranger to family drama. His film In America is one of the best family dramas I've ever seen. With this movie, he reveals a side of war that we don't typically see in movies like this. He shows us that war isn't just on the battlefield, but in the minds of its soldiers and their families.

The story is about Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire), a Captain in the Marines, who is ready for a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Before he leaves, Sam's brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal), is released from prison and invited back into the family. Tommy and Sam have a good relationship. Tommy looks up to Sam, who was the football hero, got the hot cheerleader, Grace (Natalie Portman) and now has two amazing daughters. Sam is also Pop's (Sam Shepard) favorite son. It seems that Sam is the perfect husband, soldier, and son.

Well, Sam goes off to war, and is apparently killed in battle. The family learns of this and is devastated. Grace doesn't know how to feel about it, and Tommy is angry because he was never able to prove himself. Now he will always have to measure up to his brother's memory, which will no doubt continue to grow and mythologize as time passes. But Tommy tries to make peace by becoming a better man, leading him into a situation where he might have a shot at falling in love with Grace.

But Sam's not dead. He was taken captive by the Taliban, and is back after being rescued. But he's different. He's the living dead, and no one quite knows how to handle the changes in him.

Brothers benefits from making sure that we don't pick sides. Everyone in this movie is lovable, and a victim of circumstance. You can't blame Grace for turning to her husband's brothers for comfort as she grieves. And you can't fault Tommy for wanting what Sam had because he feels so guilty for even flirting with it. This is why he brings the before mentioned Tina to his niece's birthday party; he'd only met her an hour before the party started, but he just had to prove to himself that he wasn't trying to take what was Sam's. As for Sam, even when he's full of violent thoughts, we know what he's been through, and we feel for him. It must be hard being a soldier whose seen firsthand the carnage of battle; how do you adjust to life after that? How do you compartmentalize those experiences. Who is there to train them to handle death? And who is there to train families to handle these walking dead soldiers when they return home?

"War is kind," Stephen Crane wrote with as much sarcasm as a poem has ever mustered, and this film makes a clear case as to why that is. Prepare to be depressed, though. There are no rainbows for these Brothers.

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