Yes, we’ve seen the plot before, but these performances are outstanding, and “Brothers” deserves to stand on its own merit.
            Tobey Maguire plays Captain Sam Cahill, an Army officer with a beautiful wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), two lovely daughters, Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), and a black-sheep brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal).  His parents, ex-Marine Hank (Sam Shepard) and Elsie (Mare Winningham) also live in town, doting grandparents and oh-so-supportive of Sam’s military career.  Sam is the one who picks up Tommy when he’s released from prison, for robbing a local bank.  Tommy is quick to play the wastrel again, drinking and not seeking gainful employment, much to the continued disappointment of his family.  Grace can’t stand him.  But she tolerates him because this is the only place Tommy has to go.  Suddenly Sam is shipped back to Afghanistan , and, just as suddenly, Grace receives the dreaded visit from the overdressed, grim-faced military men, and she doesn’t even have to ask them why they’re at her door.  Tommy, at first completely devastated by this horrific news, begins a gradual transformation.  He sobers up, starts working some construction with some old buddies, and fixes up Grace’s kitchen.  He starts doting on his nieces, who enjoy his playfulness immensely.  Grace eventually warms up to him, if for no other reason than you can never have too many people who love your kids.  His Dad even grudgingly begins to treat him less like the Prodigal scoundrel, and more like the only son he has left.
            Meanwhile, we viewers, at least, get to visit Sam in his new deployment, where things are strangely familiar to him.  He takes his command seriously, of course, as well as his hard-earned stature as an officer.  But a helicopter being shot down defies anybody’s demeanor strategy.  When he’s captured, he resolves to be the strong, stoic POW.  The problem is, there’s a Private Willis (Patrick Fleuger) who’s also captured, and he’s neither as physically tough nor as mentally strong, and the captors, sensing a propaganda opportunity, use the weakness of one and the strength of the other against them both.
            Now we’ve set up the inevitable tension:  what happens when they discover that Sam is alive, after all?  And how does everyone react to him when he returns shell-shocked, angry, restive, and preoccupied?  It’s as if the black sheep and the white have switched places.  Now nobody knows what to do, and the family unit is considerably stressed by all the sudden change in dynamics and expectations.
            Somehow Director Jim Sheridan keeps this drama from descending into cliché, mostly because of the fine performances he coaxes from virtually everyone in the cast, but especially the principals.  It feels very real.  And very powerful.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, Grace Presbyterian Church, Greenville , Texas