Fernando Coimbra’s Sand Castle is an Iraq war story that takes aim at US involvement. Chris Roessner’s screenplay accidentally destroys a small town’s water supply, then sends Army infantrymen in to clean up an American-made mess. We break it, we buy it – but what’s the cost of us even being there? Middle Eastern natives shoot holes in friendly tankers that only want to fix an unfortunate mistake, or refuse to help military-grade contractors because a partnership with white devils means death. The futility of war put on display, anyone? It’s not exactly the first time our Iraq occupancy has been called into question, which begs a simple question – why now, Netflix? Is this wartime drama too little, too repetitive and too late?
Nicholas Hoult stars as a gunshy young private by the name of Matt Ocre. Enlisting runs in his family, but judging by a self-inflicted wound and cast around Matt’s hand, combat isn’t for everyone. He tries to avoid service, yet heals just in time for an assignment in Baghdad around March of 2003. Sergeant Harper (Logan Marshal-Green) marches his platoon – including Matt – back to base after a successful campaign, but Uncle Sam has one more task before anyone is given leave. In an outskirts village, Baqubah, US forces accidentally destroyed pipelines that ran clean water to the villagers. Harper’s men are sent in for what should be a damage-control photo op, but instead, the American backups face hostility and resentment. Is Matt ready to display even the smallest amount of courage under fire?
When we first meet Matt, he’s injured of his own volition. Privates can’t aim a gun with a broken hand! It’s the setup for an obvious change of heart, as a yellow-bellied kid looking for free tuition becomes the war dog who hungers for action. Maybe not as barbaric as Glen Powell’s Chutsky, but fearless like Logan Marshal-Green’s sergeant figure. Harper sees intelligence in Matt where Chutsky would “stick his hand in fire,” yet trust comes first. Sand Castle is much more a coming-of-age bulletstorm than it is any kind of political statement, as the smoke of war becomes aromatic over time. Oppression and anger blended with paranoia, all while fighting a fight with no clear side. This is what Hoult must navigate as a fresh-faced warrior, targeted just for helping.
Coimbra sets Sand Castle apart from bloodier war epics like Black Hawk Down and 13 Hours by focusing on cultural tensions, not heavy-fire action. This is Baghdad on a budget. Shootouts only burst when completely necessary, and even when they do, shots are traded from sandy ridges or rocky terrain. A latter-stage ambush sticks to framing Hoult and Beau Knapp as they rattle off return-fire rounds in the direction of enemy pops, never flipping the camera to reveal their attackers. Importance is put on character mindsets, weighing sacrifice against a losing battle that continues to take everything they’ve got. Engineering hardships and failed bartering replace high-octane assassination missions, only so Hoult’s rookie can experience the gamut of emotions one experiences when thrust into a hostile situation.
Green’s handful of jarheads are charismatic to a point in their quest for glory. Hoult carries a wit about him that projects cunning smarts, which is needed for his cautious, danger-dodging private. Then there’s Powell, Knapp and Neil Brown Jr. – three dogs you let off the leash whenever jihadists bite back. Powell especially, who pushes for laughs whether a hotel is currently being bombed or their transportation tanker is leaking precious villager water. More garden-variety grunts who live for the rush, stuck digging out rubble and welding metal bits together instead of fighting tooth-and-nail. But, as Henry Cavill’s thickly-accented Captain Syverson notes (Cavill going full cowboy militant), there’s more to a war than good and evil. Sometimes I guess you need a plumber?
Motivations have been in question since the very first United States soldier set foot on Iraqi soil, and Sand Castle does nothing to sway such a narrative. As Matt Ocre makes sense of orders and retaliation, we’re repeatedly treated to comments about things going “back to normal” after America vacates. “We can protect you,” says Sergeant Harper – but that’s only true while barracks in Baqubah still stand. One busted pumping station represents a metaphor for the entire Iraq conflict, albeit an aggressive message that overshadows war addictions and a shaken performance by Nicholas Hoult. It’s such a slight view of America’s bigger, more beastly war effort, one that cannot escape a tiny microcosm that echoes familiar sentiments. Performances are fine, but not good enough to salvage an otherwise years-late look into criticisms now preached for years. It may be a beautiful day for the infantry, but it’s another walk in a landmine park for audiences.
Sand Castle is an Iraq war story about certain futility, but there's a certain redundancy to political overtones that preach what we've been hearing all along.