The accomplishment of this outstanding telepic is how it comes off as a poignant examination of two individuals rather than as an uplifting take on a cause. John Lithgow’s superlative performance as twin brothers Tom and Bob Bradley — both devoted elementary school teachers, one of whom is stricken with the HIV virus — is essential to the pic’s success.
Filmed in Los Angeles and New York by Holiday Prods. in association with RHI Entertainment Inc. Executive producer, Robert Halmi Sr.; producer, Glenn Jordan; supervising producer, Gregory Goodell; director, Glenn Jordan; writer, Gregory Goodell; But producer and director Glenn Jordan (“Barbarians at the Gate”) and writer Gregory Goodell have done their share. The true story is rendered with discipline and constraint. Structure and execution are as punctilious as ailing brother Tom’s personality.
The resonant script offers an extremely detailed story that is part medical drama, part courtroom drama, part revelatory tragedy. It’s wrenching, but without bathos. As Tom himself realizes, it’s not a profile in courage, but a story about fear — of dying, of prejudice, of family.
Lithgow creates two distinct characters, and both grow immeasurably in the course of the story. This is a huge thespian feat because the brothers are onscreen together so much of the time. The Gemini factor is handled well from a technical point of view — Bob smokes and doesn’t slick down his hair; loose collars and weight-loss makeup signal Tom’s illness — but it’s the acting that convinces.
As the virus progresses, a bone marrow transplant using Bob’s genetically identical marrow is explored. The procedure, to be undertaken at Johns Hopkins, may save Tom’s life, but the insurance company won’t cover it.
With no other recourse, the brothers go public with their plight, and their conservative Long Island community rallies round to an extraordinary (and, due to its swiftness, somewhat unrealistic) degree.
Real conflict turns out to be within the family and between the brothers. As former seminarians, they are deeply religious and have had trouble reconciling their homosexuality with their Catholicism. Their mother (Ellen Burstyn) is in deep denial. The tastefulness with which the telepic deals with sensitive issues is remarkable — to the degree that some may find it wan.
Tech work and supporting actors never detract from the central story. Annette O’Toole, as one of the twins’ sisters, deserves special mention.
Goodell’s script is deceptively calculating about its effects. The characters’ introspection is mesmerizing. “My Brother’s Keeper” confirms Lithgow’s status as one of the most versatile and subtle actors around. This project is a small form of redemption for Tom and Bob Bradley. It would be hard to imagine a more satisfactory collaboration.