Reviewed by Steve Leonard
In the documentary “My Father’s Brothers,” director Shawn Kelley attends a reunion of the 173rd Airborne to talk with his father and his father’s comrades regarding their experiences as soldiers in the Vietnam War. The film takes the form of a series of talking head interviews with the old soldiers, whose recollections are edited skillfully together into a multifaceted picture of the fear, loss, and sense of brotherhood engendered by their time at war together. It is a stirring, raw look at the experiences of a handful of men whose distance in time from the war has clearly not dulled their memories of it, which remain emotionally powerful all these years later.
The Vietnam War is a tricky topic to cover, given that its memory in the American imagination is a site of frequent conflict and revision. There is simply no uncontroversial stance to take, whether in condemnation or adulation of American involvement in Vietnam. For this reason, I was apprehensive going into this documentary over what editorial tack it would take. “My Father’s Brothers” ends up sidestepping the thorny issues of the Vietnam War by adopting a disciplined focus on the visceral, immediate experiences of the soldiers interviewed. Kelley himself is notable for his absence, providing brief narration at the beginning and end of the film but otherwise letting the soldiers tell their own stories, which range from humorous to heartbreaking and sometimes a combination of the two. This approach largely ignores the larger picture of the Vietnam War, never exploring the reasons for the war or its ultimate outcome or whether it was worth fighting; it instead depicts the war as a collection of personal experiences. This focus on the tangible rather than the abstract, the personal rather than the political, may feel myopic to some; to me, it represents a valid alternate way of looking at history, as a heterogenous collection of sounds and smells and tears of joy and grief rather than any kind of cohesive narrative. In some ways, this approach felt more honest and intimate than other more editorializing depictions of the Vietnam War.
This is not to say the film lacks a particular viewpoint; it tends toward a sort of hagiographic reverence for the soldiers involved. But the soldiers’ focus on events—a particular injury, the sound of mortar fire—rather than ideas lends the film an undeniable humanity that will touch the viewer regardless of their feelings about the war itself. In the end, “My Father’s Brothers” is about the importance of memory—memory not for the sake of politics or even of history, but for the sake of binding people together. There is a universality to this desire to memorialize our past together, to look to people who shared those experiences for confirmation that those memories have meaning and weight. I think that this sentiment will appeal to a wide audience, even among those not interested in the war itself.