As part of the continuing onslaught of timely political material, First Run Features has just released Paul Alexander's 2003 documentary Brothers in Arms on DVD. Prompted by the inevitable controversy surrounding John Kerry's military record as soon as he declare his presidential candidacy, Alexander's film directly counters the mean spirited dirty tricks campaign of John O'Neill and his Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. On the plus side, the crew members (outside of Kerry) all appear unpolished and sincere during the modern day interviews to lend credence to their story; however, the talking heads format just doesn't make for compelling film, despite its timeliness.
Compared to the far more interesting and artistically crafted Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, Alexander's 68 minute documentary contains relatively little archive footage, outside generic clips to illustrate swift boat action in the Mekong Delta and a brief clip of Kerry's testimony before the Senate Committee of Foreign Relations to highlight his "how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?" quotation. This short section actually supplies the most dramatic moments of the entire film since one Kerry crew member (Mike Medeiros) recalls his initial shock when learning of Kerry's anti-war activities.
That isn't enough to turn Medeiros against his former crew captain; he confirms Kerry's aggressive actions that justly won him the Silver Star. Medeiros and the three others interviewed here also describe how they bonded during their harrowing Vietnam experiences and reunited when Kerry gained national importance. South Carolina native David Alston, who lost his wife to cancer and once seriously considered suicide, especially appears awestruck that they are now connected to some of the most powerful and influential people in the world. While each crew member (outside of Kerry) addresses how profoundly Vietnam changed his life, Alston isn't the only one to suffer greatly from postwar trauma. Boat pilot Del Sandusky chose to undertake a second tour of duty and was on the verge of suicide until Kerry intervened to get him treated at a VA hospital—he's still going through therapy. To a lesser degree, Iowa native Gene Thorson also experienced some postwar trauma but has no regrets about serving in Vietnam.
Each crew member gets time on camera, along with scrapbook style photos to show how they once looked, during their more idealistic years when they each felt they were doing the right thing and making a difference. Thirty some years older and much chunkier than their prime Navy years, they again fight for a cause by lending credence to their former leader's military career—and they present a sincere and believable case, considering that they served right on Kerry's swift boat.
By far the weakest portions come from Kerry's polished responses that are easily glossed over as political pabulum. They say all the right things but only induce drowsiness in the viewer, as does the generally standard interview cuts. Although not a horrible film, it's best suited for late night infomercials that will only interest people keenly interested in the Vietnam War and its effects on the participants or for Kerry supporters seeking confirmation that their candidate has told the truth about his wartime experiences. Brothers in Arms competently compiles relevant interviews, but it just isn't creatively edited together and remains far too standard to inspire more casual viewers.