Written by Chris Roessner based on his experiences as a machine gunner in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, SAND CASTLE is pretty conventional as far as movies about modern war go, but its ring of authenticity and theme of futility in counterinsurgency overcomes this objection to offer a worthwhile experience. Critics and audiences didn’t seem to care for it a whole lot, but I liked it quite a bit. Though it’s no OUTPOST, it’s as enjoyable as similar efforts like HYENA ROAD.
It’s the eve of the Iraq War in 2003, and Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult), who’d joined the Army Reserve to pay for college, is fearful about what he’s about to get into. The troops roll out, and soon Ocre and his platoon are engaged in heavy street fighting. Soon after that, with the war all but over, he and a squad are tasked to team up with a Special Forces unit in a dangerous town called Baqubah. Headed by Captain Syverson (Henry Caville), the mission is to repair a water plant that was damaged in the fighting. Unfortunately, this seemingly simple task starts to feel frustratingly impossible as every step forward takes them two steps back as they deal with a hostile and fearful populace.
The movie has a lot to say about the contradictions and difficulty in fighting a counterinsurgency effort, as well as the difference between soldiers regarding what they’re doing as a job, which keeps them emotionally secure, versus a mission, where they care about the task, possibly too much. The action feels authentic and fairly intense, and the characters are likeable enough, especially Ocre’s sergeant (Logan Marshall-Green) and an Iraqi engineer trying to help the squad (Nabil Elouahabi, a terrific actor and veteran of war movies like HYENA ROAD and ZERO DARK THIRTY and TV series like GENERATION KILL). The only problem is Ocre himself; he obviously has plenty of fears and longings, but we rarely get to peer into his private world. He’s a good soldier at the best of times and a fair soldier at the worst. He’s important but not critical to the story, and the movie might have been improved if it had focused equally on the entire squad.
Overall, I don’t know if SAND CASTLE added anything new to an action-packed and thoughtful field, but I found it definitely a worthwhile watch.