It might sound trite to relate this war movie, written with keen insight by someone who served during the invasion of Iraq, to a videogame. But consider that the videogame in question was also written by someone with keen insight into the wars America has fought since 2002 (actually, since 1965).
I’m going to list a few facets of our situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each of these is a part of the story in Sand Castle and a gameplay mechanic in Afghanistan ’11. It’s going to sound disjointed, so you’ll have to trust me they come together as a narrative in both the movie and videogame.
* The military’s ultimate goal is a high hearts-and-minds score.
* If you build pumping stations, it will raise the hearts-and-minds score of the local community.
* If the pumping station is destroyed by insurgents, leaving it unrepaired will incur a hearts-and-minds penalty.
* The unit you send to repair the station can be vulnerable to further insurgent activities.
* If you visit the leaders of local communities, you might raise the hearts-and-minds score. The operative word being “might”; you also might accomplish nothing. It can go either way.
* You need a regular military unit to liaison with local leaders, because special forces are recon units without the firepower to ensure local security.
* If insurgents appear on the map, and if your hearts-and-minds score is high enough, the locals will give you the location of the insurgents.
* You can set your units to ambush mode.
* If your unit takes casualties, a Blackhawk is an ideal vehicle for a medevac.
* You will eventually have to send your units home to the United States.
As wars evolve, war movies have a sell-by date. Zeitgeist becomes period piece. Wars are still used to make more general points, but the wars themselves are settings more than subjects. Hurt Locker, Apocalypse Now, A Midnight Clear, and Thin Red Line are set in Iraq, Vietnam, Western Europe, and the Pacific, but they’re less interested in the specifics of their wars than the concept of war.
Sand Castle, however, could only be set in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chris Roessner’s script is about the specifics of transitioning from occupation to nation-building, and specifically the struggles of the US military to adapt to that transition. Given how poorly the military was prepared for occupation — the cupolas atop the Humvees in this movie are an anachronism that wasn’t added until after amassing casualties from poorly armored vehicles — it’s no surprise they were poorly prepared for nation building. It recalls Colin Powell’s Pottery Barn warning to the Bush Administration before the invasion. You break it, you buy it, he said before he was rolled out in front of the UN with a vial of fake anthrax. Sand Castle is about the soldiers standing in the aisle of Pottery Barn after the Bush Administration has dropped an expensive vase. “Here,” the Administration says, handing over the pieces, “Fix this.”
Although it’s smart and specific, the movie occasionally verges on maudlin and obvious. A drawn-out ending has everything but hobbits jumping on beds. Otherwise, the direction is functional. I wish I could say the same for the music, which stridently announces the tone of any given scene. The cast is also functional, and it’s a rare treat to see Henry Cavill with a shaved head and formidable beard as a cynical special ops officer. This is what’s become of Superman! Whereas Nicholas Hoult as the protagonist is the eyes of the movie, Logan Marshall-Green as the platoon’s sergeant is its soul. Sergeant Harper quietly subsumes the conflict between duty and frustration, obligation and sacrifice, commanding officer and companion. Whereas most of his men are grinning buffoons, he’s rarely afforded the luxury of a smile. In one scene, we hear bits of his anguished phone call back home. He subsumes that as well. This is the sort of man who will devote his life to shaping the armed forces for the better. His experiences will evolve into military doctrine as he goes up in rank. In 30 years, stars will be pinned to his lapels and our country will be the better for it.
“It’s not for nothing,” Cavill’s character says about a plan with bleak prospects. That’s pretty much the point of the movie. But Marshall-Green’s character doesn’t have to say it. His performance exudes it. Sand Castle is ultimately about the face of the American military doing the best it can with a steep learning curve.
Sand Castle is currently available on Netflix.