Throughout the new Netflix Iraq War drama Sand Castle, we repeatedly see Nicholas Hoult’s character staring at himself in the mirror. It’s usually just for a brief moment, such as when he’s brushing his teeth before going to bed or when he’s preparing to depart for a mission. He is a Private in the United States Army, stationed near the city of Baqubah, a way station on the way to Baghdad. As his voiceover tells us in the opening scene, he joined the Army Reserves two months before 9/11 purely for the college money, “I don’t belong here, and I’m ashamed of that.” By the end of the film, he still can’t look at himself in the mirror without feeling ashamed, not just due to the non-patriotic motivations which put him there but also due to the inescapable fear that he’s accomplished nothing in his time there.
Hoult’s character, as it turns out, is the mouthpiece for the film’s screenwriter Chris Roessner, who based the script on his own experiences as a machine gunner in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle in 2003. After the War, Roessner ended up working as an assistant for film producer Mark Gordon, and the two hashed out a script detailing an Army unit’s doomed mission to repair a broken water system in an Iraqi village. The resulting film feels like Roessner’s penance, the demons he had to exercise to be able to look at himself in the mirror again.
This is not to suggest his likely surrogate character played by Hoult commits war crimes or other heinous deeds; it’s more that by the end of the film he’s left pondering the futility of a soldier’s life when the orders from above don’t make sense and an entire military is forced into a poorly thought out conflict. It is clearly the work of a writer looking back on an insane time and attempting to share a grunt’s point of view on what it feels like when leadership fails and “they’ll greet us as liberators” quickly turns into a shit sandwich with ill-equipped soldiers stuck in the middle of a centuries-long civil war.
You can see where that might weigh on someone. People die in this movie (as they likely did in Roessner’s actual experience) for no other reason than they were sent somewhere they didn’t want to go and had to quarrel with locals who didn’t want them there, but it had to be done because someone high up in the command chain craved the messaging power of a potential photo op featuring soldiers bringing water back to a village full of thankful citizens. Instead, they got a village full of alternately terrified and hostile citizens with ready access to firearms, suicide bombs and rocket launchers.
It’s not so much a film about the pointlessness of war but about the pointlessness of this particular war, and can certainly be seen as a microcosm of everything wrong with American foreign policy. However, that likely attributes too much power to Sand Castle, which is an oddly weightless movie, despite everything it likely does to relieve Roessner’s conscience.
It’s important to remember this is Roessner’s screenwriting debut, and only director Fernando Coimbra’s second film (the first being 2013’s A Wolf at the Door). They conspire to present a capable, straightforward “this is what it was like to be there” dramatization of events, but do little to add cinematic heft or gripping tension to the story nor do they build up the characters into anything other than generic war movie types. The political message is often outright spoken by Hoult’s character via blunt dialogue, and that’s actually a step up from the often stilted, awkward dialogue in other scenes. Furthermore, there are multiple gunfight sequences which simply end and cut to the next scene, leaving us to conclude, “Huh. Well, clearly they made it out of there okay…somehow.”
The end result is a truly well-intentioned movie which is surprisingly easy to forget the moment you reach the closing credits.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Jarhead, The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill…watch one of those instead of Sand Castle.