There are two things I like about Fernando Coimbra’s Sand Castle, the direct-to-Netflix war drama that was released a fortnight ago. The first is Nicholas Hoult, whose character, Private Matt Ocre, is loosely based on the experiences of screenwriter Chris Roessner. Roesnner joined the Army Reserves two months before September 11, 2001, never expecting to go to war. Hoult sells that. He looks like there’s a knot in his stomach that at any moment he’s liable to cough up. The opening scene of the movie has him bundle a greasy rag into his mouth and slam his hand repeatedly in the door of a Humvee, hoping to evade deployment.
The other thing I like about Sand Castle is the eye-rolling doctor who informs Ocre that he’s seen men deploy with significantly worse injuries. This isn’t a great movie, but it has a few characters like him, and lines similar to the one he says, that tap into the mundanity and futility of war, and how routine it can feel to fight one. It’s reminiscent, sometimes, of Jarhead, the 2005 movie that was about men going abroad to fight and then not fighting at all. Sand Castle is vastly inferior to Sam Mendes’s film, and Hoult’s taciturn beta male character wouldn’t have worked in it, but the people around him, who include Logan Marshall-Green’s Staff Sergeant Harper, and Henry Cavill’s bearded special forces meathead, could have been body snatched directly from its cast.
The particulars are different, obviously. Jarhead was set in the Gulf War; Sand Castle takes place in the opening months of America’s invasion of Iraq. Ocre and his unit are despatched first to Baghdad and then to a city called Baqubah, where a water pumping facility needs fixing. The movie never really comments on the fact that the facility needs fixing because the U.S. forces bombed it; it’s narrative outline, and not an allegory for America’s foreign policy, although if you squinted it could probably work as one. But, as a premise, it manages to capture a sense of what the early period of a military occupation might feel like – the confusion, the shock of the enemy’s tactics, the harshness of the terrain, the incompatibility of the local’s customs with the West’s, the wonky morality of digging a populace out of a mess you put them in. Will the pumping station remain fixed? When the troops have cleared out, will the villagers be okay? On some level, Sand Castle lives up to its title. Impermanence is as much of a threat as gunfire.
What’s unfortunate about Sand Castle is that it believes this story to be strong enough to overcome a distinctly flat production, and while the value of it being mostly true is certainly felt, it’s such a familiar reiteration of war’s pointlessness that you can’t help quickly tiring of it. Visual flair and panache might not have been enough to elevate it entirely, but this is a movie that could have used the punch of an exciting action sequence as a course-correction whenever it veered towards boredom. And that’s the most damning criticism of a piece of media – a war film, in particular – I can think of, but also the most applicable to certain stretches of Sand Castle. The fact remains that the futility of war, especially in the 21st century, is not a novel avenue to explore.
Sand Castle’s young cast turn in mostly-decent performances, though. Cavill, unsurprisingly for him at this point, doesn’t make much of an impact, but Marshall-Green is an interesting, talented actor, and while Hoult’s character isn’t as rounded as he could be, his performance lends Ocre a relatable contour that the script doesn’t. I’ve heard, from certain sources, that despite a few inaccuracies here and there, Sand Castle is fairly realistic. You can believe that. These performers seem to believe it, too. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe the true realities of war are that it’s too unglamorous, too unpleasant, and too unnecessary to be entertaining.
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