Does every veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan believe he or she has a story that deserves a larger audience than just family and friends? The journey to and from the battlefield, hooked to larger ideas about the nation, the military, and war, seems to be the very stuff writing was made for. The urge to render the particular flavor of one’s personal voyage in just the right form so that it expresses something approximating truth in a way that connects with larger audiences is nearly irresistible. This very understandable idea helps fuel the tremendous output of memoirs and essays by veterans over the last few years.
The grandiose outcome of such thinking is Hollywood. Not content with publication in print or online, ambitious artist-veterans shoot for the stars: their story is one that deserves transformation into an entertainment-art form viewed by the millions, not one read by the dozens. Plus, the money and the fame…. The only thing that could be more gratifying to the veteran’s desire for recognition and approval is Twitter superstardom….
Such were my thoughts as I watched Sand Castle, a Netflix original film released in 2017. Based on screenwriter Chris Roessner’s tour in Iraq in 2003 as a civil affairs specialist with the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, Sand Castle made me wonder how Roessner accomplished the seemingly unimaginable feat of convincing real live moviemakers and money-men to pour their energy, talent, and dough into bringing his self-penned biopic into being.
The answer to which, as it happens, is recounted by Roessner in two interesting interviews here and here. The short version: after war, undergraduate and graduate film school at the University of Southern California. Then, several years of low-paying internships and assistant positions. Finally, catching the attention of the right person on a Friday evening and waking up Monday morning one of the hottest young bucks on the Hollywood screenwriting scene.
More on that below, but to the movie itself…
Sand Castle begins with an extended voice-over from the Roessner character, named Private Matt Ocre in the movie and played by British actor Nicholas Hoult. His unit staging in Kuwait prior to the invasion of Iraq, Private Ocre tells us that he is no gung-ho soldier, but a misfit who joined the Army Reserves for the college money (which actually doesn’t make him that different from most soldiers–it’s the gung-ho ones who are exceptions). We witness Ocre mutilating his hand by slamming it in a Humvee door to escape combat, but the ploy only earns him a cast and a bottle of painkillers, for which the battalion surgeon tells him, “Whatever the suggested dose is, double it.” Ocre meekly rejoins his squad, a trash-talking, iron-pumping pride of lion cubs who appear to be auditioning for the next Jarhead sequel: One of Ocre’s squadmates welcomes him back by declaring, “I think I smell pussy” and another exclaims “Baghdad or bust, bitches!” when the invasion order arrives.
The voiceovers disappear when the troops roll into Iraq, and as the movie settles into some very straightforward, literal recounting of things that happen, there’s little more that demarcates Ocre’s interior thoughts or places him at the center of dramatic tension. After a bit of initial excitement, his unit’s tour turns boring, and to escape dull routine in Baghdad, Ocre’s squad leader volunteers them to assist an Army Special Forces team assigned to a remote village. Upon arrival, Ocre’s unit learns their job is to help rebuild a water-treatment facility. “Rebuilding” apparently consists of endless digging by hand a big hole that a backhoe could scoop out in ten minutes, but whatever. The soldiers try to enlist local Iraqis to assist them, but they meet resistance until they broker a deal with a kind-hearted Westward-leaning schoolteacher. A moment of forward movement on the big hole ensues, along with a moment of rapport between Americans and Iraqis, but it all goes to hell when local insurgents douse the kind-hearted schoolteacher with gasoline, hang him upside down, and burn him alive in front of his school.
The Americans launch a raid to kill or capture the evil-doers, which adds a little bang-bang sizzle to the movie, and somehow the Americans rally a few Iraqis to get back to work on the hole. But when a car bomb destroys the water-treatment facility, the Americans, along with the Iraqis, come to a collective “fuck it” moment, and Ocre’s unit returns to Baghdad. As the movie concludes, Ocre’s commanding officer and command sergeant major decide that he has now obtained enough war stories to interest Hollywood, and so they put him on a plane back to the States.
That last bit about being sent back to make a movie is not actually what happens in Sand Castle, but it might well be. Hoult as Private Ocre is not the deep, brooding artist-at-war the movie proposes he is, but pretty much a blank slate. Still, you can see his wheels turning as he considers how he might render his love-hate relationships with his rough-and-tumble squadmates, his tough-but-wise squad leader (Logan Marshall-Green, who is great, the best thing in the movie, he should have played the Sergeant Dime character in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), and the enigmatic Special Forces captain (played by another Brit, Henry Cavill, who was voted by the British Glamour the World’s Sexiest Man in 2013) into a compelling screenplay. Sand Castle tries to get details right, like how soldiers smoke a lot (but where’s all the dip?) and give each other “A-C-E” reports after battles. It also tries to convey “what it was really like” for average Joes who don’t have American Sniper-esque tours to brag about. And yes, its point that it was pretty clear that the war was not going to go smoothly from the beginning is well-taken. But Sand Castle also flubs big-time on other efforts to bring the soldier’s experience to the big screen, primarily in odd casting choices for Ocre’s lieutenant and command sergeant major. With no major parts for women—not even a love interest back in the States for Ocre–Sand Castle is “all-dudes,” which in this day-and-age is something of a statement. The direction, by Fernando Coimbra, is mixed: scenes are paced briskly, so the movie trips along quite nicely, but the pictorial framing of each shot is flat, especially all those views of soldiers hacking away with pickaxes at the big hole.
A movie about how Private Ocre subsequently willed Sand Castle into existence would probably be a better movie than Sand Castle, to be honest. Called Hollywood or Bust, Bitches, it might mash-up Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by having Billy Lynn by-pass Albert the middle-man to take his tale direct to Tinseltown where he becomes a vet version of the crazed movie-making wanna-be portrayed by James Franco in The Disaster Artist. But Billy Lynn was too unassuming to aim for movie-making death-or-glory, or to put it differently, he didn’t have the balls and vision to turn his battlefield heroics into a cinematic selfie. And so we have Sand Castle, a minor-note addition to the canon of Hollywood war films characterized by outsized pretensions of importance. Somewhere in the admixture of Hollywood-sized vanity and small-scale accomplishment lies the movie’s charm and curiosity, its successes and failures. Watching the movie unfold is to watch it become aware of its limitations: Sand Castle tries reasonably hard to do justice to a grunt’s-eye view of Iraq, but the lead character isn’t all that interesting and the doomed mission to rebuild a village water system not all that exciting.
What Roessner thinks of all this, I don’t know, but I’m curious if he is proud of Sand Castle, in spite of its modest achievement, or if he has regrets about how a better movie got away from him in the sausage-making process. He’s probably most happy to have punched his ticket admitting him to LA insider status. If that’s the case, I wish him well as he moves on to bigger projects, while I remain on my couch most evenings scrolling through Netflix wondering what to watch next.