The latest Iraq War film Sand Castles (premiering on Netflix today) opens with a line from lead character Private Matt Ocre: “I don’t belong here.” While he’s talking about his role in the army, he might as well be referring to the American military presence in Iraq.
Sand Castles takes place during the Second Gulf War as American troops invade Baghdad in 2003. Just as Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) and his fellow soldiers are about to go home, they are sent on a humanitarian mission to both rebuild a pumping station that American forces destroyed in the fighting and to deliver water to the locals until the construction is completed. Their commander encourages them, “We’re winning hearts and minds here.” Not long after their arrival in the small town of Baqubah, local militants begin fighting back, attacking the soldiers and any Iraqis that dare to help them. Despite their best efforts–and superior firepower–Ocre and his fellow soldiers can’t get the situation under control as the film builds to a shocking, but frustrating, conclusion.
Sand Castle, like numerous recent war films, is filled with moments of nerve-wracking tension, even if some of those scenes are hampered by unnecessary music cues. It boasts strong performances from a lineup of young actors including Glen Powell, Logan Marshall-Green, Neil Brown Jr., and Beau Knapp. Directed by Fernando Coimbra from a screenplay by Chris Roessner, Sand Castle tries to say something fresh about this particular war–and combat in general–but ultimately fails to do so.
However, two themes in the film are worth noting. The first is Ocre’s enlistment, which he claims to have done only for tuition money. Later in the film, when he supervises an Iraqi mechanical engineer helping to rebuild the pumping station, he is shocked to learn that a university education is free in Iraq. “Nothing’s free in America,” he mumbles. Ocre’s situation is representative of far too many young men in America and those numbers are only likely to grow.
A second noteworthy point in Sand Castle is the reality of Muslim communities’ double victimization at the hands of both American military forces and violent Islamic fundamentalists. The residents of Baqubah are loathe to help the soldiers repair the pumping station. Their mentality seems to be, rightly, “You broke it, you fix it.” As the film progresses, we see that their refusal to work is also a matter of self-preservation. Anyone that helps the American forces does so at risk of great personal harm, and the first man to do so is burned alive and hung upside down from a pole.
In the midst of all this conflict, frustration, and violence, Sand Castle ends on an oddly optimistic note. Perhaps this reflects the persistent American belief that “we” can solve violent problems with violent solutions.