Jake Rademacher’s Brothers At War is an atypical Iraq War documentary. In a sea of furious anti-war jeremiads angrily shaking their collective fist at George W. Bush and his compatriots, Rademacher’s film is notable for the complete absence of criticism. The film depicts serving in the Gulf as a terrific way to make friends, bond with brothers—familial and otherwise—and build character. It’s practically a feature-length infomercial for the military.
The film stems from Rademacher’s efforts to understand the lives of two of his brothers serving in Iraq. Isaac is a muscled, confident super-soldier who wouldn’t look out of place in a G.I. Joe cartoon. Joe is a sensitive soul with a haunted, vaguely tragic air, a disconcerting thousand-yard-stare, and deep emotional scars thanks to the death of his troubled brother/best friend. A fascinating documentary could be made about Joe; in a riveting sequence, his beautiful girlfriend talks candidly and movingly about the profound ways the war has affected him. Instead Rademacher heads out with troops and embarks on a dangerous, self-indulgent quest to show his brothers that he’s no wuss just because he’s a civilian who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Jared Fogle of Subway commercial fame.
Brothers At War consequently becomes a bizarre, sappily scored non-fiction family psychodrama about the filmmaker’s testosterone-fueled competition with his bros in arms. Rademacher captures a few telling, amusing slice-of-life moments, like a group of soldiers whose homesickness and lack of sexual release lead to an unlikely obsession with The O.C.,but the unlikable filmmaker keeps putting the emphasis firmly back on himself. Rademacher’s strange vanity project ends up saying a lot more about his family issues and need to be seen as a swaggering badass than it does about the day-to-day life of soldiers in Iraq.