Director: Fernando Coimbra
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Logan Marshall-Green, Henry Cavill, Tommy Flanagan
Watch Sand Castle online in the UK: Netflix UK
Although technically a British movie, Sand Castle is an American story, specifically that of Ohio-born screenwriter Chris Roessner. Based closely on his own experiences serving in the 2003 Iraq War, his alter ego is Pvt. Matt Ocre (Hoult), who, his voice-over tells us, joined the US Army in July 2001, “two months before that meant something”. Playing out like an unflashy version of Jar Head or The Hurt Locker, Sand Castle is an intimate, soldier’s eye view of a sprawling and controversial conflict.
We first meet Ocre in Kuwait, on the eve of mobilisation, breaking his hand in a van door in a failed attempt to get sent home. “A war story can’t be true,” he tells us, “unless it’s got some shame attached to it.” The shame, of course, goes way deeper than that of a scared infantryman; while not an overtly political film, snippets of Vice President Cheney being questioned over the non-existence of Saddam Hussein’s WMDs reinforce the uncomfortable feeling that Ocre and his comrades are an unwanted army of occupation. We also see, as Ocre gets to know the Iraqi civilians, the realisation that Iraq, even under Saddam, had many good points the US sorely lacks – free university education, for instance. “Huh,” says Ocre, “in America, nothing’s free.”
The meat of the film sees Ocre’s squad dispatched to real-life desert town Baqubah, 50km northeast of Baghdad, to restore the water-supply that American bombing destroyed. As a metaphor for the folly of waging war to bring peace, it’s potent – the hapless soldiers find that the civilians won’t help them, partly out of antipathy to the US, but mostly because the insurgents will kill them if they do. Ocre, meaning well, persuades a local school-teacher to rally his people, with tragic results.
The antithesis of bombastic Hollywood war films, Sand Castle’s strength lies in its naturalistic tone and straight-forward storytelling. For a lot of the time the soldiers aren’t even in particular danger, bored and hot in tents, assured by the media that they’ll be going home soon. The result is that when these young men find themselves suddenly thrust into a shooting war, the audience is right there with them – combat is chaotic, loud and damn scary.
The cast, predominantly Brits putting on Yank accents, are superb. In the lead, Hoult proves he’s come a long way from About A Boy and Skins, and also that, after excellent support in Mad Max: Fury Road and the X-Men: First Class, he can hold his own in the lead; look out for him in something big before the decade is out.
Already ‘big’, both in terms of career and muscle, is Superman himself, Henry Cavill, here unrecognisable as a bearded and brash Special Forces captain. The stand-out, though, is Ocre’s dependable sergeant, played by actual American Logan Marshall-Green, whose face will be familiar from countless movies including Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.
As a war film, Sand Castle is more vignette than epic saga, but it succeeds in bringing home the casual terror of conflict, and serves as a potent reminder – with the squad blindly swearing they “won’t leave until the job’s done” – that regime change without an exit strategy will cause far more bloodshed than it saves.
Sand Castle is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.