“Legion of Brothers” is a story of heroism writ bold, but it is also something more.
On the most immediate level, this involving, unexpectedly moving documentary describes the impressive Green Beret covert deployment in Afghanistan five weeks after 9/11, detailing how, as one participant puts it, “less than 100 guys toppled the Taliban and ran Al Qaeda off.”
But this is no chest-thumping epic. For one thing, these soldiers, whose exploits director Greg Barker has wanted to film for 15 years, are thoughtful, contained men who talk with a marked lack of bravado.
More than that, Barker, responsible for HBO's "Manhunt" and the too-little-seen “Sergio,” is concerned with showing the side of heroism we don't always get to glimpse.
That is a sense of what these acts took out of these men, how difficult, even painful their combat experience was. The soldiers have few regrets about their service, but dealing with the aftermath was more complex than anticipated.
Green Berets apparently go into war zones in 12-man teams, and “Legion of Brothers” follows two specific groups, describing what they did back in the day and showing us where they are today.
Up first are the men of Team 595, introduced as they are now in a backyard cookout with their wives. We not only hear individuals say things like “I'm as close to these people as anyone in my family, in some ways closer,” we actually get to see this camaraderie for ourselves.
We also get to hear how these men, who were the first U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan after 9/11, felt about their covert operation. “You had the weight of the nation on your shoulders,” says one, while another adds somberly, “We had a responsibility to the people who died.”
When one of the group says he wanted to insure “the possibility of a brighter future for the people of Afghanistan,” it is not parroted propaganda but sincere belief. Summed up the team's commander, Capt. Mark Nutsch: "When you need the Army, we are it. We're the praetori, the spearhead."
You also hear from the men's wives, who tell of having to be prepared to be on their own for six to nine months, often on very short notice.
“I wouldn't want to be my wife or one of my sons,” one of the men confesses, wondering, “What kind of a father was I?”
Once inside the country, Team 595 linked up with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and, anachronistically mounted on horseback like their fellow combatants, helped capture the key city of Mazar-e-Sharif.
The story of the other group of Green Berets, Team 574, has a darker tone, prefigured by the attention and support we see the men give the teenage son of one of their number who died in Afghanistan, the first American casualty in that country, as it turns out.
One of the operations Team 574 was involved in included giving the OK to F-18 combat jets to drop bombs on a 100-vehicle truck convoy that may or may not have belonged to the enemy. "I said, ‘Smoke ’em,’” says Capt. Jason Amerine, a bit in disbelief. “Where did that language come from?”
Team members describe the viewing of the aftermath, of seeing the remains of people burned to death.
“It is what it is, I don't know how to describe it,” one man says stoically, with another adding, “They're the enemy. If you don't do it to them, they'll do it to me.”
As another soldier says of a later encounter, “The horror of it is very personal.”
Worse was yet to come for Team 574, however, as a conflict with other American military and a ghastly mistake gives “Legion of Brothers” a shocking ending with which the men who lived through it still have trouble coming to terms. Looking at combat from all sides, examining the pride, the anger and the regrets, is what this fine documentary is all about.
'Legion of Brothers”
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle's Noho 7, North Hollywood.