The Iraq War is already proving itself to be an historical quandary, not even 15 years after it began. The war was, in the title of the best expose of its incompetent motivation and planning, a fiasco of the highest order, a tragedy and a scandal that has marred the 21st century United States in much the same way that the Vietnam War did for the 70’s version. But for all that, the Iraq War is slipping out of our consciousness, a past mis-step that no one has been adequately called to task for, an awkward little war that few seem to want to remember or record properly. This holds true for film too, where the days of The Hurt Locker or Taxi To The Dark Side already seem very far away, replaced by jingoistic militaria like American Sniper. Enter Netflix, director Fernanda Coimbra, and writer Chris Roessner, whose Sand Castle is based on his own experiences in Iraq. Ahead of the more command focused War Machine, Sand Castle was a more traditional war movie offering to take a look at the US’ Middle-Eastern catastrophes. Could the streaming carry on from the success of The Siege Of Jadotville? Or is this a tired look at a tired war, slowly vanishing from the headlines?
On the eve of the American assault on Iraq, Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) slams a car door on his fingers to try and get out of the fighting but is denied a reprieve. In the aftermath of the invasion he and his squad must deal with the contradiction of an insurgency war when they are tasked with repairing a bombed out water system in a remote part of the countryside.
I think the problem with Sand Castle, an otherwise fine if pedestrian war movie, is that it has pretensions of being something far greater, that it never really comes close to fulfilling. The film opens with the cowardly Ocre narrating how he doesn’t feel “lucky” to have been given a war, and that “a war story can’t be true unless it has some shame attached to it “, right as he tries to inflict an injury that will prevent him from rolling out. This isn’t your typical war film then, of someone overcoming their fears as they head into combat. Instead, it will be about an unabashed yellowbelly, being dragged kicking and screaming into the firing line. But not really, because while Sand Castle sets itself up in this way, in reality it very quickly moves beyond such a conceit, and into every cliché you were fearing to encounter.
A lot of them pop up here: the squad of competing personalities pumping iron before the fighting begins; the no-nonsense Sgt-Major; the professional Sgt who cares about his men; the Lt out of his depth and more concerned with optics; experiencing the adrenaline rush of combat; experiencing the heartbreak of seeing dead and wounded comrades; the bullshit mission with impossible to fulfill requirements; FUBAR talk of quitting and walking away; dow-eyed civilians caught in the crossfire; a coming of age in terms of participating in combat; a grizzled special forces veteran giving advice; and a somewhat downbeat “The job isn’t done, so why are we leaving?” ending. Even the general narrative is predictable to a fault, with its ups and downs, act breaks and ending.
A lot has been written and said about the difficulties of “COIN”, and you can magnify those a hundred fold when the army undertaking the practice is an unprepared and under-supported as the Americans in 2003. Sand Castle does a decent job representing them without descending into hysterics, and it interestingly also doesn’t really make any argument for the opposite “Grab them by the balls” strategy either. The vacillation fits in a film that wants the audience to understand how impossible a conundrum Iraq in the summer of 2003 was: you can blow up the bad guys from the air, but in the process you destroy an entire regions ability to get water; you can supply the locals water from a tanker on a daily basis, but when you ask them to help repair the water system, they’re too intimidated by the insurgents to show up; you can try and pay locals for their work or even just pay them after thinking they are out topkill you when they aren’t, but you run the risk of insulting them in the process; you can kill the bad guys without killing anyone else, but others will start strap bombs to themselves and willingly become human weapons.
Sand Castle succeeds in that way, but falls flat in other areas. Most crucially, Sand Castle just doesn’t have enough new to say about war or the experience of war. Ocre doesn’t grow or change enough in the course of Sand Castle, the war is the story in itself. In much the same way as The Last Patrol attempted to answer questions of masculinity as it relates to military service, Sand Castle tries to frame a story of men in combat dealing with that strain, and then men dealing with the desire for safety, comfort, revenge and release in such an environment. But it isn’t done to the required degree.
It helps that the film is acted and written actually rather well. While Hoult will never really be true Hollywood leading man material in the same vein as others, he’s still proving himself a remarkably versatile actor in both role and accent. He carries off the American jarhead very well, adding a nice degree of pathos in early exchanges as he contemplates and then hides his inner cowardice. In many ways the kind or role Hoult is inhabiting here is that of an audience surrogate, viewing the war and its tribulations through his eyes, but it then suffers from the fact that we have seen it all before. Hoult is able to vividly portray a soldier struggling to keep his emotions in check, excelling when the mask slips, such as when an air strike is called in very close to him, or when tragedy strikes later on, but the character itself is lacking: often, films of this type have to bring in the element of home life to flesh soldiers out, as Krigen brilliantly did last year, and Sand Castle chooses not to do this. Indeed, it’s probably the one war movie cliché the film doesn’t embrace.
The others in the cast have limited time to make an impact: Logan Marshall-Green’s Sgt’s has a moving humanity to him in his tiff upper lip in front of his men that morphs into a very raw emotional need in private, while Henry Cavill’s seems a bit miscast in a relatively throw-away role as a special forces operator. Navid Negahban and Nabil Elouahabi fulfill the main Iraqi roles as brothers who risk their lives to help the Americans fix the water system, and they’re decent too, but it’s fair to say that Sand Castle isn’t really about Iraqis.
The script is the other reason that Sand Castle is not a write-off. Roessner knows what he’s talking about clearly, and Sand Castle has that smack of realism in the interactions between the cast, not unlike Generation Kill, that Sand Castle is, knowingly or unknowingly taking plenty of cues from. Hoult’s brief narrations are effective, and there are plenty of stand-out verbal moments, such as Syverson’s discussion with Ocre on his pet dog, the back and forth between the US military and local Iraqi civilians (one, an engineer, expresses astonishment that you have to pay for college in America), Ocre having to decide “are you more likely to get shot in the front or the back?” when handed extra ceramic plating and a late postscript on the point, or pointlessness, of the war.
It ties in nicely with Coimbra’s direction, which is inventive enough given what I can only presume was a limited budget: the arid slopes of the Iraqi desert are all-encompassing in wide shots, giving the land a bleak feel, until bullets start flying and the cinematography makes it clear that danger has a thousand places to hide behind. Restrained one-shotters follow Ocre through a staging area and then through combat. Ocre later lingers looking at a broken piano in a palace his unit occupy, that, outspokenly, becomes a potent metaphor for Iraq itself, once beautiful, but now irrevocably trashed by the carelessness of others. And the combat scenes have a nice sense of restraint that translates decently into actual tension: the “bad guys” are only seen all too briefly, and in a third act firefight you don’t see them at all. Coimbra embraces the madness too, like in an early dash through a fire zone where one soldier curses a trailing radio that suddenly drops from his belt, perhaps an adlib.
In one of its final shots, Sand Castle casts a lens at the absurdity of the Iraq War in contrast to the comforts of modern life expected by western societies: as two characters discuss the insanity they have endured before re-entering a FOB, fellow soldiers queue up at a lunch buffet behind them, making sandwiches, having presumably just exited the nearby swimming pool. Iraq is a wasteland outside the walls: to a large degree it remains a wasteland still. No one would claim that Iraq was a paradise under the Hussain’s, but it is hard to still say, with a straight face 14 years on, that Iraq is better off. Sand Castle may struggle with parts of its message and narrative, but it at least puts some brief focus back on America’s greatest mistake of this century, a mistake that, in an age of a new Trump scandal every 15 seconds, is receding from view. Sand Castle won’t stay long in the memory either, but has plenty going for it even so: it’s well worth a watch despite its flaws. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).