Americans have rarely seen war. Even during the World Wars, only a relatively small number of Americans saw war up close. Since the advent of television we have all seen war principally through the eye of the TV camera, reliant on others to sift through the information to present what they deem appropriate to see. One man decided that this was not good enough for him and changed how we understand war forever.
Jake Rademacher is not some detached Hollywood actor seeking greater meaning in his life. He had two brothers in Iraq. Jake had wanted to attend West Point, but was washed out by physical maladies like poor eyesight. His brother, Captain Isaac, had attended West Point and was leading troops in Iraq. Another brother, Sergeant Joe, is a Ranger and was in Iraq as a sniper. While Jake followed news reports daily, he felt a yearning for greater understanding of what his two brothers were going through.
This led Jake on a five-year journey to create his documentary “Brothers at War.” Setting out to show the reality of war-zone experience, Jake was granted special access to his brother’s unit in Iraq. He decided against using any stock footage. He wanted viewers sharing the soldiers’ daily challenges just as he did while living the life of a soldier in the hot, dry, dangerous zones of Iraq. The result produces a film that rivets and gut-wrenches the audience in a manner that no fictional movie ever could. The audience feels the true experience of the modern-day soldiers defending our country.
The film intertwines the experiences in Iraq with the understanding of the Rademacher family dynamic. This family of six children and two devoted parents, hailing from Decatur, Illinois, represents the values of the heartland. That was the background Jake brought to the filmmaking. He always believed that the mainstream media provided an even-handed representation of the news and events in Iraq. But his experiences on the front lines clarified to him that they were misrepresenting the challenges and accomplishments of the troops, making this film ever so more valuable an experience for Jake.
There have been other recent attempts to convey the reality of the Iraq war, such as the film “The Hurt Locker” and the HBO mini-series, “Generation Kill.” When we recently met, Jake told me he felt the main difference between his film and these other very worthy projects is that the others rarely show the bad guys. You never get the true feeling of the enemy. Jake went on patrol with Iraqi troops. He said when you see insurgents with Syrian passports attacking Iraqis you begin to understand the true sense of what purpose we have in this war.
In any film there are moments that motivate each viewer differently. The scene that hit me, and I felt encapsulated all aspects of the film, was when Jake was sitting around one night while on patrol and interviewed SPC Christopher Mackay. Mr. Mackay, sitting in the middle of a desert with no bed or cover or toilet, was asked why he was willing to suffer these discomforts. He replied, “my niece, both of my nieces, they’re gonna have an education; they’re gonna have a life and it’s because of me being over here that they’re gonna be able to continue their life. You know, same with like if you have kids or anybody else has kids I mean, we’re out here for them you know, we work for them.” Jake then asked Mackay if it was worth it if it costs him his life. Mackay replied “Yeah it’d be worth it. That’s why I’m here, I’d give my life for America any day; wouldn’t think twice.” The statement stills gives me chills.
Moments like this are why Jake has had such a tremendous response not only from viewers like me, but from veterans of Iraq and other wars. Those veterans are telling him that his film captures the true essence of their experiences unlike any they have ever seen. Jake told me of one screening where he was speaking with Senator John McCain and a Vet walked up and hugged Jake. Even McCain was caught short by that.
Brothers at War will be back in the movie theaters for Veteran’s Day. Whatever you do, see this film. This movie changed the life of Jake Rademacher, it changed my view of our troops and it will change you unlike any other movie you may see. It is a monumental experience in documentary filmmaking.