Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, In America) opens his drama about a wife and two brothers with a shot of the American flag. Grace (Natalie Portman), her Marine husband Sam (Tobey Maguire) and their two young daughters (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare) live in one of those patriotic small towns where the Stars and Bars are slapped on every satellite dish. (And where they graduated high school as the head cheerleader and football star.) So, too, does Sam’s brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal)—at least, sort of. He’s been living in the jail down the road, and now freshly released, he’s decided to hole up in a local motel. When Sam’s helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan and Grace gets that dreaded visit from two formal Marines, everyone is upended. Sam’s dad (a great Sam Shepard) takes to drink, Grace and her girls crumble, and Tommy’s first reaction is to show up wasted and screaming on her doorstep, blaming her for allowing Sam’s second tour of duty. Gyllenhaal anchors the film as a screw-up who slowly fills the vacuum his stand up brother left behind; he’s solid, complicated and wholly credible. By contrast, Portman is a girl playing dress up—Sheridan tries to age her with turtleneck sweaters, but she’s more believable as a galactic queen than a heartland housewife. When Carey Mulligan (the breakout star of An Education) pops up in a cameo, you realize how rich the film would be with her in the lead. But Portman was cast because she’s pretty, and if you’re in any doubt of that, screenwriter David Benioff nudges us with lines like, “Oh my God, she’s so pretty!” The film is apolitical enough for both red and blue staters. War is noble, except for when it isn’t, and when one of the girls says that her daddy is fighting the bad guys with the beards, the family smiles without egging her on. It doesn’t spoil the film to reveal that Sam survived his crash. What follows both abroad and at home is so wrenching, he almost wishes he hadn’t—a painful twist the film approaches with the same clear-eyed patience.

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