Feature Story By Brad Balfour
Presently known for playing Detective Mac Taylor on the hit TV series, CSI: NY, the talented Gary Sinise has done it all--acting, directing, making music and producing everything from plays to films. Now, Sinise plays the role of executive producer for the recently released documentary feature, Brothers At War. Since Sinise has been nominated for an Oscar (Forrest Gump), a couple of Emmys and a Tony (for directing Sam Shepard's Buried Child), he's a good man to have on board.
Though he only got involved pretty much after the principal shooting and editing was done, Sinise signed on to give the film's creator, director and producer Jake Rademacher, a boost in getting the public to come see his family film. Rademacher not only makes his directorial debut, creating this intimate portrait of an American family during a time of war, he's also one its subjects-- as one of the three brothers involved.
Sinise is already known for offering support to the troops through his past tours to Iraq with his Lt. Dan Band, a musical side project named for his most famous role, Lt. Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump. Sinise has been doing USO tours in Iraq and fundraising events ever since 2003, playing bass at 30-odd dates a year. In 2004, he co-founded the Operation Iraqi Children's Foundation which provides kids with school supplies and other resources.
Through this film, Rademacher sets out to understand his two brothers' military experience, their motivation to be in Iraq, and the sacrifices of those who are serving there. For the gravel-voiced Sinise--who has his rap on the film down to a set of well-worn, thought-out bits of banter--this film clearly provides a positive counterweight to the plethora of features critical of the war. After Sinise made a disparaging remark in an early interview about director Brian DePalma's Redacted, a cinema verite-like polemic feature about several soldiers in the Iraq War, he offers answers that now avoid controversy.
Jake got embedded with four combat units in Iraq and this deep access to US and Iraqi combat units alloweds him to get behind the camouflage curtain. With humor as well, we see what happens with secret reconnaissance troops on the Syrian border, the sniper "hide sites" in the Sunni Triangle, and what it's like running with the Iraqi Army as well.
As Rademacher follows his siblings, we see them at home where this life-threatening work and the separations it creates ripple through everyone involved--parents, wives, and children. Jake sees how alike and different his life is from his brothers, and this doc offers a rare look at the bonds between soldiers on the front and the people left behind.
Implicit in the experience of seeing the film is a strong sympathy with the military and in turn, with the missions in Iraq and, by association, Afghanistan. So it's no wonder that Sinise, who is not known for liberal sympathies, chose to lend his clear support to this film during a recent roundtable.
Q; How did you get involved in this production?
GS; A mutual friend of the filmmaker, Jake Rademacher, and mine, Michael Broderick, who's an actor and former Marine, had seen the film. [He] introduced Jake to me thinking that we would get along and that I would appreciate the movie. So Jake and I set up a screening [at] a time where we could see the movie together. I saw the film and very much enjoyed it and just fell in love with that family. So I wanted to do what I could to help support it.
Q; Did the film enlighten you to some aspect of a military family or with people involved in the military that you weren't familiar with, or in a way you hadn't thought about or was aware of before?
GS; Well, I don't know. Having gone on so many bases and visited so many troops and military families, performing for them, this film showed me what I already knew. It reaffirmed that.
It's a look at military families and military life, the Iraq war and the integrity of the people that I know that are serving that; I responded to [this] positively and wanted to support it. Because Jake is a brother, not a journalist, he's not someone looking for a story from the outside. He's inside looking for a story, someone who wants to know a little bit more about his brothers and what they do.
So he's got a very personal interest and agenda, to just find out about his brothers and what makes them tick and to get to know them a little bit better and see why they're serving and what they're doing over there. That's the aspect of it that I liked a lot.
He's just a guy who knows a little bit about the military, and wanted to be in the service. Years ago, Jake envisioned himself going to West Point and that kind of thing. Well, he didn't have the eyesight and other things like that, but his two younger brothers joined. You can tell that there's an awkwardness in the beginning of the film with him and his older brother, when he first gets to Iraq.
I don't know if you remember that part, but when he first gets to Iraq, he hugs his brother and then his brother immediately sees one of the soldiers who's with him and jumps on that guy as if they're closer to each other than he is to his own brother. That tells you a little bit about what his mission is, to sort of understand his brothers a little bit more, get closer to them and find out what makes them tick.
So it's this particular movie about brothers at war set in Iraq and on military bases back here, at home with the families, that has a personal heart to me. It had a lot of heart and it shows you a lot of very interesting things that people aren't that aware of or might have slightly been aware of.
Unless you have a personal connection to someone in the military you probably don't know that much about what military families go through or why someone serves or what motivates them to do that. This [film] helps explain that a little bit.
Q; Did you have any creative input into the film at all?
GS; When I first saw it, it was cut. It's changed a bit since I saw it. Things have been trimmed and slightly adjusted. John Ondrasik's song at the end was added after he attended a screening that I setup.
John's a friend of mine. After I saw the movie I hosted a screening in Hollywood for a group of people. I brought a bunch of different people together, trying to get some distributors in there and some people that might be able to help the film, One of those people was John. He called me the next day and said, 'I was very moved by that movie. I went home and...I'm sending you an MP3 of something that I whipped up on piano last night when I got home.'
He wrote the song that's on the end of the movie and sent it to me. He didn't know what he was going to do with it or anything. But, as we moved along and when they finally got distribution at Samuel Goldwyn, we went back to John and Jake talked to him about adding the song in the end titles.
I made little suggestions about this and that. But Jake was on his way with the film and basically I just said, 'How can I support?' So I started trying to introduce him to people that might be able to help him find a way to a distributor which eventually we did with Samuel Goldwyn.
Q; Some people have felt that the film was pro-war. How do you feel when you hear comments like that?
GS; Had they seen the movie?
Q; They were never asked.
GS; Well, it'd be interesting afterwards if they'd have that feeling about it. Like I said, this is a personal movie. There's a personal agenda by this filmmaker to understand his brothers a little bit more. That's the heart that I like about the film.
We've seen lots of footage from Iraq, news clips of bombs going off and all kinds of things going off. There's very little action in this movie until the end of the film when we see what we haven't seen--an Iraqi team out on patrol and they get ambushed by Syrians who came across the border and used a cell phone to blow up some Iraqis. The guys that blew up those Iraqis in the movie were Syrians.
We don't really see our Marines working hand-in-hand with the Iraqis in this way. That's what I see when I go over there. I talk to these guys all the time about what they're doing. Generally, they want to complete the mission. They want to succeed. They want to have the Iraqis stand up and secure their country and come home, having succeeded. [They want to] know that what they did over there meant something and left something [behind] that might have a chance to last over there and be better. So it's not your usual [story with] bombs going off and chaos type stuff going on. It just shows military families and what they are going through.
When Isaac comes home to meet his little baby who was born right after he deployed, or just before he deployed, he knows that she's not going to have a clue as to who he is. That's not an untypical thing that happens to someone who gets sent off to war.
These young families have kids and then they go off and their kids don't know who they are. So it's interesting to watch him get to know her. Now I've seen him with her and she can't get enough of him. He's a great dad, a wonderful leader and his men that are serving with him look up to him. I see a lot of that in the military when I go out there. There's a lot of integrity that we don't get to see often enough, a lot of very dedicated and committed people who serve.
People serve for various reasons--some of them for very patriotic reasons. They just want to serve their country. Some want to get out of their town and see the world or get an education or get some benefits, whatever it is that they're serving for. But folks like Isaac, that's a military guy. That's a guy who went to West Point. He wants a career in the military and he's going to serve his country for a long time, until he's done. Those folks have a high degree of integrity and they're good folks. That's what I'd say.
Q; This movie seems to be made for this time as opposed to if it had been made at the beginning of the Iraq war. It's less about immediate dangers and more about how they function in that on-going environment. Would you agree, that this couldn't have been the same movie if it was made at the beginning of the war?
GS; Well, [Jake] happened to be over there at a very dangerous time. He was there in 2005 and 2006 into 2007. And he went back twice; it was a very dangerous and explosive time over there.
Q; Do you think it would've been a different film at the beginning than what we see now, edited and put together at this point?
GS; It might've been. I don't know. Yeah, maybe it would've been. That's hard to say. Again, as he says at the beginning of the film, "I want to know why my brothers are serving. I want to see what they're doing there."
So that's what he goes in search of. It's kind of humorous a little bit at the beginning of the movie. He's kind of bumbling, doesn't know what he's doing over there and he's throwing up on the side of the road, asking for sunscreen. But at the end, I think he learns something--not only about his brothers through those that are serving with his brothers, but he learns some good things about himself.
His brothers are closer because of it. You can see his relationship with his younger brother Joe. Joe doesn't trust him. Joe basically says, "You don't know. You went over there on one trip. You don't know what we do over there. You're pretending you're a know-it-all about what's going on."
He goes back without his brothers being there to find out more about who his brothers are. That's when he ends up in a crossfire with these terrorists firing at the Iraqis. He sees the integrity of our Marines over there and what they're doing, to try and help those Iraqi troops get better, stand up and take care of themselves.
He comes back and his brother has a more accepting feeling towards him, because he knows that [Jake] cared enough about finding out a bit more about what's going on over there to go and put himself in harm's way. His younger brother gains a lot of respect for him through that.
Q; It seems like Jake really wanted to experience what his brothers were going through. He finally did get the ambush with the Syrians attacking the Iraqi patrol. Do you think the film would not have been the same without that scene?
GS; You mean had he not seen combat like that? Well, I think that was an important part of it. The fact that he placed himself in harm's way and went out mission after mission after mission with these guys just to try to understand them and what they were doing--think that was a part of his younger brother's...
Q; Disappointment in him?
GS; Well, no. His gaining respect for him. You see that. He was close with his brothers, but remember, when [Jake] comes home the first time and jumps on the bed with his brother and tries to hug him, his younger brother just gets up and runs down the stairs. He doesn't want to have anything to do with [Jake] and he won't talk to him.
It was Jake's feeling that was hurting him. That was another motivating factor for him to go back a second time, to try to understand a little bit more about what his younger brother had seen. His younger brother had seen some pretty bad, difficult stuff. Jake just said, "I'm going to go try to find that part of it"--the uglier side of it. Seeing Iraqis get blown up is not pretty and that was difficult for him.
Q; The recent smatterings of Iraq war films haven't been successful at the box office. It's hard to release films like this at times of war. What have you thought about the recent slate of Iraq war films--especially those that raise questions about the war?
GS; It'd be hard for me to speak about those other movies because I haven't seen them.
Q; Can you talk about releasing a film like this while we're still engaged in the war.
GS; I can speak to some of the reaction that this movie is getting from the people who serve, because we have opened it in some of these military towns like Columbus, Georgia, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. where Fort Bragg is. It's in Jacksonville, North Carolina, at Camp Lejeune, and we've screened it at Fort Hood and some other places.
Jake even took it to Iraq one time to screen it for folks there. They're responding positively to it. The military wives that have to deal with these deployments respond to those two young wives in the movie, what they're going through and how difficult it is for them. They seem to have a very positive reaction to it.
Q; You founded the Iraqi Children's Foundation--what does it means when someone of your stature supports these causes?
GS; I started The Operation Iraqi Children Program in 2004--after my second trip to Iraq. On my second trip to Iraq, I was able to go out and visit schools all around the area that I was in. These schools had been rebuilt by our troops.
I visited one school that was originally nothing but a dirt floor and some walls; the troops came in and poured this concrete floor in there. They knocked holes in the walls for windows. They put up ceiling fans. They painted the place. There was no toilet at this school. There was a hole in the back for the kids to go in. They put toilets in. The troops rebuilt this school for the kids. This was early on in November 2003, very early on.
There were desks, maybe about this big, wth three or four kids sitting at each desk. Nothing by our standards. Even some of our schools that have less money to put into them, there's at least things on the wall that the kids paint. Here the walls were just white. Nothing was there but a concrete floor, desks, a blackboard, and that's it.
I remember seeing these kids--they had one pencil between three or four kids and very little in the way of school supplies--but they had this great love for the troops that had given them this new school. The Iraqi headmaster took me into his office which was about as big as this corner over here, very small, like a custodial closet or something., but on the wall he had made this plaque and wanted me to see it.
I got my picture taken with the headmaster of the school. It was a plaque that was a thank you to the Coalition Forces who had come in and rebuilt their school.
So I wanted to help support that good feeling in some way, between the troops and the Iraqis. That's how were going to move forward, by keeping these relationships strong and good and positive with the new generation of these kids that are coming up. These kids clearly saw our troops as guys that were helping them. I wanted to reinforce that.
I went to my kid's school and we started collecting school supplies, pens, pencils, paper, Beanie Babies, soccer balls and things like that. We boxed them all up and shipped them to the base that I was on. They took them out and gave them to the kids that they had helped.
Out of that I teamed up with Laura Hillenbrand. Laura wrote Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Laura had a program and she was trying to get her book Seabiscuit translated into Arabic because one of the colonels over there was reading it and the kids started asking him about the book. So he contacted her and asked if we could get Arabic translations of the book [to him]. We did a program where we made 15,000 copies of Seabiscuit in Arabic and sent them over there.
Then Laura and I teamed up to fund Operation Iraqi Children so that other people could do what I did which was collect school supplies and send them over to the troops. Out of that we partnered with People to People International run by Mary Eisenhower. Her grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, started an organization called People to People International. They go all over the world and help kids. They contacted us and so we teamed up with them.
In 2004, we started the website up, www.opertioniraqichildren.org, and so for the past five years we've shipped supplies over there. We've sent hundreds and hundreds of thousands of supplies over to the troops. They've taken this stuff out and given it to kids all around the country.
[In April] we have American Airlines doing an airlift of our supplies. They're taking 25 tons of Operation Iraqi Children supplies over to Iraq and distributing them. Now we're sending our stuff to Afghanistan to the troops there so that they can take the supplies out and give them to the kids. It's a way to extend the hand of friendship between our troops who are over there. It helps them and it helps the kids. It's a win/win.
Q; How do you find the time with the TV schedule?
GS; Well, because the TV schedule stable and steady, I can maneuver things around. They're very supportive of the stuff that I've been doing. I have tomorrow off, for example. I'm playing a concert for the troops here at the Lexington Amory on 25th Street.
There's a unit down there called The Fighting 69th and they've actually lost 25 guys in the war. I'm going to do a concert for them and support them. CSI is very, very [good about it]. They work well with me on some of these things and allow me to have some days off here.
Q; Did Jake, Isaac or Joe participate in any way in the troops giving to the children?
GS; Not Jake. I don't know if Isaac or Joe have been a part of units that have actually taken our supplies out. I never asked them that, if they ran into our supplies at all.
Q; What about the efforts to rebuild schools and things like that?
GS; Oh, yeah. Isaac could tell you all kinds of stuff about that, stories.
Q; We didn't see any of that.
GS; Yeah, but there's a lot of that that goes on. Maybe we'll make another documentary and show you some more.