Hollywood's hot young turks tackle contemporary issues in this current-day war tale based on Susanne Bier's 2004 Danish film of the same name.
The plot is one that's unfurling in homes and hometowns all over the USA. Capable Marine Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) and his childhood sweetheart wife, Grace (Natalie Portman), are raising two young girls while Sam does back-and-forth tours of duty as a helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. Sam's latest deployment comes at the same time as his ne'er-do-well brother Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) is sprung from prison for his part in a thwarted bank robbery.
When Sam's chopper is shot down the military comes calling, declaring him dead. A bitter pill for Grace and kin to swallow as Sam is the kind of guy with no quit in him, the immaculate white hat to Tommy's black and a hero in all eyes.
Forced to step up, Tommy becomes a surrogate Dad to Grace's girls, Isabel and Maggie (Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare), and perilously close to a love interest for Grace herself.
In stark contrast to the Rockwellian folk scenes playing out on the snowy homefront, Sam is enduring his own personal hell in the Middle East, struggling to stay alive in order to return to his family. This is the film's weakest link -- slightly insubstantial on the dark horrors that can result in severe psychological change. Sam returns a shell of his former self whose guilt and paranoia cause him to see things in a different light.
Jim Sheridan knows his way around dysfunctional drama (think "In America," etc.) and keeps a steady finger on a high-tension wire humming with anxiety. A-listers Gyllenhaal, Portman and Maguire are all up to snuff, with Maguire sporting a stunning melodramatic transformation from confident, straight-arrow Marine to self-flagellating apparition.
Best of show goes to Madison, who acts the pants off the adults with sensitive expressions of fear, affection and inevitable parental damage on her vivid little face.
War pics are a risky business, especially during the holidays when it's all about the upbeat warp and woof of life. Even "The Hurt Locker," one of the year's best-reviewed films, did disappointing box office when it was released this summer. Sheridan's ode to those who serve is gloriously atmospheric -- perhaps perilously slow in spots -- but gives plenty of bang for the buck.