Mistaken for Strangers is a documentary about the National, but not really. When he invited me to write about this movie, Talkhouse editor Michael Azerrad opened with something along the lines of “So your sister told me you don’t like the National, but that won’t really be an issue.” As soon as he explained to me why my feelings about the film’s subjects were irrelevant, I knew I needed to see it.
I have an identical twin sister. And we’re both musicians. We used to play together and now we have our own bands — I’m in Swearin’ and Katie is in Waxahatchee. We are extremely close, as twins tend to be. People often assume that with siblings who share similar interests, a sense of competition lies at the core of their relationship, that no matter how supportive of each other’s endeavors they might be, they still want to be better than their brother or sister. Obviously, I can’t speak for everyone, but I have found — both in life and in this film — that a driving force to succeed is not at the root of sibling dynamics, instead there’s a natural craving for acknowledgment from this one other person. There is also the impulse to help that person when they’re down on their luck. It’s much more complicated than just sheer jealousy — it really is a cycle of highs and lows, and in this film, director Tom Berninger is fearlessly plummeting in front of all of us, and his older brother, National frontman Matt Berninger, is waiting there at the ground floor. And so, instead of the National, Tom Berninger’s main subject is really himself.
But before we go any further, let me clear up something: I don’t actually dislike the National. Really, before I’d seen this movie, I had only listened to them while passing through coffee shops or shuffling through Pandora radio stations. When I looked into it a little more, one of the first things that really stuck out to me about the National is that they are literally a band of brothers: Twins Aaron and Bryce Dessner and brothers Bryan and Scott Devendorf make up four-fifths of the National, leaving Matt Berninger as the only person in the band who doesn’t share a last name with another member.
The basis of Mistaken for Strangers is a dream-come-true rock doc scenario for the younger Berninger: his brother asks him to come out for a year-long tour with the band and work as a roadie. But Tom has never been to Europe (a fact that Matt had overlooked), never been on a tour bus (which he adorably brags about at a local Cincinnati record store before departing), and prefers metal to the likes of the indie-rock band that currently employs him. But he quickly casts aside his duties as a crew member in favor of filming and is almost immediately at odds with both the tour manager and Matt. It becomes clear that Tom’s energy is all wrong for touring; he certainly is ignorant about performance — he’s usually right in Matt’s face the moment he walks off stage, which in one instance leads to a minor tantrum from the older Berninger.
Tom eventually starts to allude to the tour being a disappointment and that he thinks they should all be partying more, but his wish is thwarted by the expectations of his fellow crew members and Matt’s constant monitoring of his drinking. (He refers to his drunken counterpart as his “allergy.”) Tom’s detached but easygoing spirit makes him an absolute outsider among the group. It also makes him the undeniable star and most interesting part of this movie. The questions he asks are so clueless and original that really no one who has ever been in a band before would think to ask them: “Do you take your wallet on stage?” “How famous do you think you are?” “Where do you see the National in 50 years?
The opening sequence of Mistaken for Strangers is an interview between the Berninger brothers in Prospect Park, with Tom speaking from behind his handheld camera and Matt sitting in a full suit under an umbrella trying to avoid getting sunburned; it is from this moment that you realize how candid Matt Berninger can be with his younger brother. He can only be honest with him. Tom launches into some questions and, instead of answering, Matt begins to passionately express his concerns about the film; he is nine years Tom’s senior and while he is often impatient, he obviously wants his brother to be successful.
Tom takes definite pride in speaking with each member of the band and although he has a clear vision of each member’s intro sequence, these interviews quickly turn into mini vent sessions for Tom about Matt; as a twin I was especially intrigued by how the Dessner brothers were extremely open to this, even on camera.
In the second half of the film, which in many ways feels like the second act, Tom talks to his parents bluntly about the different experiences they had raising the two brothers and the differences they see in the two of them now. Their mother speaks of Tom as the more creative of the pair while their father perhaps harshly proclaims that Matt is the more confident and successful; in some ways the exchange solidified a theory of mine that mothers of multiple children often champion the underdog. The most poignant scene is a montage at the end of the film, of some early National live footage that ends with a confessional speech from Tom: “My brother sees something in me that I don’t always see myself.” That sentence struck something in me even outside of the context; it is brazenly raw and courageous.
Matt and his wife Caryn Besser act not only as the film’s producers but as concerned citizens throughout the process, and at one point Tom moves in with them while he completes the editing process. “Having Matt as my older brother kind of sucks because he is a rock star and I am not,” Tom proclaims in the last minutes of the film. Watching him come to this realization while stumbling through making a simultaneously original and archetypal music documentary made me call my sister immediately and tell her to watch it. It also kind of made me want to listen to the National.