At first, Shawn Kelley’s My Father’s Brothers feels like every other talking-head History Channel special about one of America’s late-20th-century wars. Kelly reunites many of the men who served in Alpha Company, a group that found itself pinned down by 300 Vietcong soldiers on June 29, 1966. They discuss the friends they lost and the heroism they discovered within themselves that helped them survive. These events from over a half-century ago made them brothers.
They share anecdotes about how they came to join the military and what life was like as enlisted men so far from home, fighting a war without clear aim. Tears are shed, laughs are shared and the film ends on a rousing note about eternal brotherhood.
What makes it feel special — although perhaps not unique — is Kelley’s emphasis on making the film as a way to get to know his own father. Jack Kelley went to war by choice and found himself in a world he didn’t understand. He held the stories about his time in Vietnam close to his chest for most of Shawn’s childhood. By positioning the interviews as a way to explore the stories his father hadn’t told him, Shawn frames the relatively short feature in an emotionally effective way.
The interview segments are edited to provide each of the 10 subjects a chance to share at least one or two strong stories, but it’s hard to get to know any of them. With so many people in the brief 73-minute runtime, My Father’s Brothers moves quickly. Perhaps too quickly. The events chronicled gained these men and their fellow soldiers nearly 80 commendations, with a Medal of Honor among them. It feels like the movie only scratches the surface about their experiences in the Vietnam War.
Regardless, Kelley has crafted a heartfelt and thoughtful piece. It made me think about sitting down at a local war museum near my home, speaking to veterans about their experiences. It’s taken many of the men in My Father’s Brothers decades to find the right words to tell their stories, and it’s fortunate for the audience that Kelley was there to record them.