To tell others’ stories, we must first listen to others’ stories—that has been a maxim, the maxim, for as long as there have been stories to pass down. And it seems to have served both as very personal motivation and inquisitive destination for Shawn Kelley in his filmmaking debut, “My Father’s Brothers”—a simple Vietnam War documentary that tells a valiant story without fuss or frills, without marvelous revelation or impossible-to-recapture observation. Just an intent to listen.
We hear from Shawn Kelley directly, but first from his father, Jack Kelley Sr., who thrusts us into the uncertainty of being a soldier in Vietnam before reaching legal U.S. drinking age over stitched-together archival footage. Things are a bit disorienting at first; you may find yourself struggling to stay afloat amid the barrage of military jargon being thrown our way. Shawn interjects before long with a preamble of sorts, explaining that while he always knew his father was in Vietnam, he was never privy to the particulars. In fact, he thought his father’s military role extended to a desk job.
Not so—Jack Kelley Sr. didn’t have a pencil in his hands but a rifle. “My Father’s Brothers” is the result of Shawn learning the details of his dad’s Vietnam War experience – more specifically a harrowing and bloody ambush that killed many of his friends – as it was initially divulged over a family vacation, when the director finally decided to ask. “You took your parents for granted,” Shawn says, using his own perspective to give voice to a universal attribute of youth. “My Father’s Brothers” seems, more than anything, like one person’s attempts to fill that blind spot. But intimate motivation ends up being buried under recitation of history. A story is told here, but I’m not convinced that a story is explored.
The details of what happened on June 29, 1966, are recounted through the words of about 10 members of Alpha Company of the 173rd Airborne, with the requisite bugle crooning in the background. Reflections revolve around the uneasiness of initially arriving in Vietnam, the logistics of going out on patrols and the chaos that broke out with the first triiing of gunfire upon an ambush from Vietcong forces. The talk is candid, and some of the testimonial nuggets welcomingly help to separate the facts from Hollywood fiction.
But there’s also plenty of room for these veterans to be more frank than they are. The documentary struggles mightily to discern individual personalities otherwise, and that comes from the obvious nature of Shawn Kelley’s information-gathering process: Setting up a tidy interview spot in the same location with the same military colors filling in the same space behind each talking head. We don’t get an opportunity to actually see the lives these men have made for themselves after surviving the ordeal of June 29, 1966, and I wish we had. As it is, “My Father’s Brothers” doesn’t definitively justify making the effort to split up the story between multiple subjects. Why not just stick with Jack Kelley Sr.? Better to get to know – to truly get to know – one of these people on the screen than asking more than half a dozen to recount a singular experience with few degrees of separation.
The documentary is nonetheless a charitable one. Its straightforward chronology is made even more legible with title cards announcing chapters like “Arriving in Vietnam” and “The First Patrol.” The formal structure and easygoing pace are fully informed by Jack Kelley Sr. and his brothers-in arms—these men surely have shared their anecdotes before, whether over a Fourth of July beer or at organized reunions. But while Shawn Kelley does an adept job of listening, there’s no signs of attempts at interrogation, making for a narrative that feels a bit one-dimensional, bordering on disappointingly stoic.
More urgently, it makes it difficult to invest in the words these men are speaking, in the implications behind a statement like “Everywhere you looked, there was blood or bodies.” Indeed, we end up learning just as much – if not more – about the Vietnam experience and the horrors that Alpha Company endured from the way these veterans search for their words, how they compose themselves and where their eyes go as they begin to well up from revisiting 1966.
While the memories are clearly etched in stone on their minds, the movie doesn’t offer fresh suggestion as to why they should be imprinted on ours. Even at less than 80 minutes, watching “My Father’s Brothers” gets repetitive—floating head, sepia photograph, a few seconds of historical footage, repeat. While it’s admirable that Shawn Kelley keeps things simple, the monotony gradually becomes a disservice to the story at large.
That is, of course, unless we have our own Jack Kelley Sr., or Mike Sturgess, or Bill Vose. Someone who has served in Vietnam whose stories we may also have been only vaguely familiar with until we decided to prod a bit and peel back the cover of personal experience. I don’t happen to have anyone in my family or close circle like that, but that shouldn’t mean “My Father’s Brothers” can’t provide valuable insight to me. On the contrary, I was compelled by the veterans' all-too brief recollections of returning to the site of the ambush in 2010, and discussing with a former Vietcong soldier about how they remembered the conflict. Here, the doc hints at interesting, more universal ideas of perspective and how perspective is shaped by the passage of time.
And yet it feels too much like a footnote here, an aspect of Alpha Company’s story that the director didn’t seem all that interesting in learning more about. What should be a documentary that amplifies awareness about one particularly horrific Vietnam War incident just ends up feeling like one of a thousand other horrific Vietnam War stories like it, whether based in fact or in fictional movies set in the conflict. I can certainly believe that things come full circle for Shawn Kelley – and perhaps Jack Kelley Sr. too – with “My Father’s Brothers.” For us, the impression is fleeting.
This review was written as part of KENS 5's 2020 San Antonio Film Festival coverage.