Film Review: Legion of Brothers

A harrowing documentary portrait of the earliest months of the war in Afghanistan, 'Legion of Brothers' meanders in its storytelling but ultimately hits a nerve.
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The wages of war are many and profound, for the nations that fight them, the leaders who inflame them and the civilians who lose loved ones or their lives. No one who’s touched by the death and destruction survives truly unscathed, least of all the men and women of the military who soldier in combat. For each of them, war is a life-changing experience that, according to one of the combat veterans in CNN Films’ blistering documentary Legion of Brothers, is shaped ultimately by how close they were to the killing.

In 2001, on the front lines of America’s war in Afghanistan, no soldiers were closer than the special-forces team members dispatched as the United States’ immediate response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Propelled by the emotional first-person accounts of those men who were first on the ground in Afghanistan—members of Team 595, a unit consisting of a dozen Green Berets plus two Air Force combat controllers—this film at its most powerful conveys with shocking clarity a close-up view of their mission: to overthrow the Taliban and disrupt al-Qaeda operations. Poignantly revealing what inspired some of the men to join the military in the first place, the film also conveys their views on the mission. “We were America’s response to the most catastrophic terrorist attack on U.S. soil ever… This wasn’t about retribution. It was about justice.”

Director Greg Barker, an Emmy-winner for HBO’s 2013 documentary Manhunt: The Inside Story of the Hunt for Bin Laden, deploys revealing interviews, riveting archival footage and combat video, along with a hailstorm of maps and graphics, to tell this story of warfare conducted mostly in secret by Team 595 and several additional units, including Direct Action Team 574, the first in the war to suffer casualties. Whether interviewed among their wives and friends at a backyard barbecue, or all alone on a remote mountaintop, the men (and they are all men) relay not only the experience of the mission, but how that mission and their years of military service have changed their lives and, in some cases, their character, for better and for worse.

While the film presents the combat action in Afghanistan more or less chronologically—from Team 595 dropping into the North, through the Taliban’s surrender barely two months later—it’s not a completely linear journey. Rather, it’s more a loosely structured oral history, at times rambling, though almost always engaging, and occasionally over-reliant on computer-graphics sizzle to make its points or plot out logistics. Animated satellite maps run blood-red, and lights and landscapes blur, padding the reporting, as the narrative bounces between the team members’ descriptions of life in combat versus life back home. Segments organized into discrete thematic discussions of family and fatherhood, mental health, the call of duty and the tolls of war feel slotted in, juggled around more than juxtaposed meaningfully.

The transitions do work at times to provide some welcome relief from the unrelenting intensity and gravity of the raw combat footage, which Barker and editor Robin Schwartz use sparingly yet effectively. Images, shot by the soldiers’ own body-cameras, of teams battering into al-Qaeda targets’ homes, guns blazing as frightened women and children scurry in and out of sight, indeed bring the audience devastatingly close to the killing, and to the soldiers’ pain and trauma. So do the men’s recollections of the carnage they witnessed, and the carnage they caused, the smell of charred bodies, and their beards caked with sand, debris, and the blood of their brothers-in-arms. As one vet describes it, “The horror is very personal.” At its best, the film captures just how personal war can be for those fighting the battle.

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