Sundance Film Review: ‘Legion of Brothers’

Special Forces personnel relate the harrowing stories behind the first post-9/11 U.S. missions in Afghanistan.

Legion of Brothers
Courtesy of CNN Films

An intense depiction of the risks undertaken by two of the first U.S. Army Special Forces units deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11, and the long-term personal impact of such experiences on those who fought, “Legion of Brothers” has surviving soldiers relate their harrowing missions, 15 years later. Those memories are still fresh wounds to many, who believed, at least, that their sacrifices had a quick, decisive effect. Implicit in the documentary is the veterans’ dismay that a series of disastrous subsequent American tactical decisions would create ensuing “quagmires” in the region years after. The film would make a striking double bill with Charles Ferguson’s 2007 “No End in Sight,” which depicted the cumulative failures of judgment which undid the progress made by successful initial actions.

Greg Barker’s feature doc sidesteps any overt political agenda, making this the rare nonpartisan documentary that might tap some of the wide, largely conservative audience that embraced “American Sniper.” This is by far the more honest film, as well as a tougher watch, but its up-close portrait of heroic dedication in extreme situations has the dramatic immediacy and air of privileged access to impress both hawks and doves. Gravitas Ventures has picked up U.S. theatrical and other rights at Sundance from CNN, though the latter will remain its domestic broadcaster.

The protagonists are Green Berets dispatched to Afghanistan in top-secret assignments just weeks after the 9/11 attacks. Among the 12-man “A-teams” which prepared for that purpose in Fort Marshall, Ky., two are spotlighted here: Capt. Mark Nutsch’s Team 595, and Capt. Jason Amerine’s Team 574. The former group was first to arrive, on Oct. 19, and tasked with joining forces with the anti-Taliban military front Northern Alliance to capture a series of cities in the north, with the objective being the regional capital Mazar-e-Sharif. They did this primarily on horseback — not exactly a familiar means of transport for most of the 595’ers.

On Nov. 3 Amerine’s team began infiltrating key points in the south, in tandem with future Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Moving toward Kandahar, they, like the other group of Green Berets, managed to wipe out enemy strongholds while capturing or killing a number of important Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders.

It would be a shame to spoil the details (whether forgotten by most viewers or mostly withheld from the public initially); as related by those who fought, they often pack a wallop, and none more so than the catastrophic incident in which a U.S. air strike (which the officers here thought ill-advised and unnecessary) was ordered for the wrong coordinates. The result was that one Special Forces team here was on the receiving end of 2,000 lbs. of explosive friendly fire. Despite that horror, their missions, and others in the first wave — undertaken by fewer than 100 troops — were so successful that many had reason to believe that Islamic terrorism had suffered a crippling, perhaps even terminal, blow.

Though these now-middle-aged men were already longtime military personnel, some with decades of service behind them, such ordeals are still traumatizing — no matter the depth of experience, or good fortune to escape bodily harm. There isn’t much explicit discussion in “Legion” about the psychological after-effects the soldiers suffer. But it’s clear from the present-day framing scenes — of the vets having a backyard BBQ with their wives, and on a guys-only camping expedition — that what these men have absorbed requires, at the very least, regular doses of each other’s company. The most conspicuously live-wire personality here does admit that, upon returning home in 2001, his wife wound up in the hospital after he beat her during a stress-induced meltdown. There’s little doubt a separate documentary could be devoted to the various manifestations of the soldiers’ post-traumatic stress, if they cared to discuss it.

Despite much repetitive, if necessary, use of onscreen text, it’s often difficult to keep the unfolding stories of the two units straight. But Barker (himself a military brat whose docs have specialized in such subjects) and his collaborators do a fine job of weaving verbal recall and myriad visual materials into a compelling narrative, sometimes using reenactments where no archival video exists or is publicly available.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Legion of Brothers’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2017. Running time: 79 MIN.

  • Production: (Documentary) A Gravitas Ventures release (U.S.) of a CNN Films presentation of a Passion Pictures and Bergen-Mabile production in association with PrettyBird Pictures. (CNN Films, Washington D.C.) Producers: John Battsek, Greg Barker, Tresha Mabile, Peter Bergen. Executive producers: Amy Entelis, Vinnie Malhotra. Co-producer: Diane Becker.
  • Crew: Director: Greg Barker. Camera (color, HD): Frank-Peter Lehmann. Editor: Robin Schwartz. Music: Philip Sheppard.
  • With: Jason Amerine, Mark Nutsch, Scott Neil, Bob Pennington, Billy Howell, Amy Nutsch, Andy Marchal, Paul Evans, Steve Bleigh, Mike McElhiney, Wes McGirr, Cliff Richardson, Jesse Davis, Christina Davis, Mi Kyong Davis, Dave Fox, Don Bolduc.