The most interesting thing about the Netflix exclusive Sand Castle is probably how much of an Iraq War movie it is, in the sense that, like any truly middling example of a genre, it involuntarily bares the genre’s tropes. It’s a stale, phony, grunt-level sort of view of American intervention, cast in large part with Brits and shot in the familiar desert backlots of Jordan, which has stood in for the site of one Middle Eastern conflict after another since Lawrence Of Arabia. Within its unremarkable mise-en-scène, one finds Humvees, makeshift plywood walls, and defaced Ba’athist palaces where dirt-seamed American soldiers lounge on showroom-style furniture—all those things that made the Iraq War, like all widely televised conflicts, into a subgenre of war story before anyone had a chance to write about it in fiction or memoir. It’s that paradigm shift of war in the buzzing age of mass media: There is literally nothing more horrific than war, and yet nothing seems to become overfamiliar more quickly through modern media saturation.
Any viewer in their mid-20s or older “knows” the Iraq War—that is, there is little a movie (whether documentary or fiction) can show them that they didn’t first see on a small screen while folding laundry or eating cereal. So the object of war stories becomes not the fact of war, but the quote-unquote “truth” behind something that is too well known. The thing about these quote-unquote “truths” is that they, too, are often alike: tales of disillusionment and gradual alienation and of hayseed recruits plopped in an unforgiving landscape where they don’t know how to tell friend from foe, unprepared, plodding around under 70 pounds of equipment. Pvt. Ocre (Nicholas Hoult), the protagonist of Sand Castle, at least has a head start. First seen trying to break his hand in a Humvee door, Ocre is already disaffected and looking for a way out. He joined the Army Reserve before 9/11 to pay for college tuition, never suspecting he’d be tasked with bringing democracy to the people of Iraq. Barring democracy, he can at least bring them water.
If there is something like an elegant piece of storytelling to Chris Roessner’s screenplay (inspired by his own experiences in the Iraq War), it’s in the fact that it avoids a tour-of-duty structure to instead follow Ocre’s infantry squad—led by Sgt. Harper (Logan Marshall-Green)—as it’s dispatched to repair a community water pump that was accidentally hit by an American bombing raid. As far as obvious metaphors for the post-invasion American presence go, it’s a good one: laborious grunt work turned into an almost Sisyphean task by cultural barriers, suspicions, resentment, fatal mistakes, and a mutual fear of cooperation. In his English-language debut, Brazilian director Fernando Coimbra makes some interesting use of Vietnam movie tropes, particularly in the choice of Queens Of The Stone Age’s “No One Knows” as a shockingly effective place-and-time signifier. (Less effective: Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” in a subsequent scene.) But the Iraq War was not visually varied, and it takes a certain artistic regimen to keep a film about the conflict from disappearing into a dust cloud of khaki tones.
Coimbra’s style is functional, and that may be the nicest thing one can say about his film. Sand Castle is short on memorable personalities (though Henry Cavill, who plays a Special Forces captain, has a very winning beard), psychological insight, atmosphere, detail, or immediacy. It isn’t the dirtiest, dustiest, or most stomach-churning film made about the Iraq War, but it might be the most generic. It sets out to show soldiers becoming frustrated with locals, squads mourning friends, and the general futility of war (in the socially kosher “question the orders, support the troops” fashion where war is everyone’s hardship but nobody’s fault), and it serves its purpose without distinction. Treated impersonally, a truth that bears repeating is nothing more than a cliché.