Sand Castle

Sand Castle [2017]: Written by Iraq War veteran Chris Roessner and directed by Brazilian Fernando Coimbra, Sand Castle is the latest release from Netflix and, as with many of their recent films, it is a mostly mixed bag. Telling the story of a unit that, in 2003, is set to fix the water supply for the village of Baqubah, Sand Castle is just another recent war film that may have more ideas and better writing than many other recent war films, but just lacks the scope, power, and punch, that can be found in all of the best war films. As it stands, however, Sand Castle is a mostly entertaining film that really never lands completely, instead of being largely cliche and a palatable affair that never does enough to reach its epic ambitions. Though presenting a series of positives in its acting, action, and general premise, Sand Castle cliches and telegraphing of its punches largely leaves it as nothing more than an average work.

Microcosm of the war. Set in Baqubah, Sand Castle shows a group of men led by Sergeant Harper (Logan Marshall-Green), who are sent to fix the water supply of the village after the Americans blew up the water pump. Told through the eyes of Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) who, along with fellow soldiers Burton (Beau Knapp), Chutsky (Glen Powell), and Enzo (Neil Brown Jr.), must face the dangers of this village in an effort to provide water to the people of the city. Yet, no matter what they do, they face obstacles. From bombings to citizens being afraid of helping the Americans, this group of men can never to make any headway in the area. For every step forward they take, they three steps back as they either must face IEDs, snipers, or the enemy terrorizing those who offer to help pump the water. Introducing Sunni and Shiite troubles into the scenario, Sand Castle shows just how difficult it is to do good in Iraq due to the various opposing forces at work. From religious strife to a desire for control of the area, the Americans just wind up being another side reaching for the same plot of sand and being unable to actually gain the control they desire. With lines of dialogue highlighting how this battle over the water supply is similar to the Americans’ struggles in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, the film may be a bit too obvious in its metaphor, but it is well-taken and effective in showing why the Americans have had such problems in the area. Unfortunately, as the film demonstrates, the ones caught in the crossfire are average citizens who mean no harm and simply want water and for people to stop fighting over their land. If that means the Americans leaving, then so be it. Anything to bring back peace.

Beauty in a time gone-by. Throughout the film, Sand Castle sprinkles in moments where the characters seem to largely embrace their surroundings. From extravagant castles and ruins, it becomes quite easy to see the beauty of Iraq. For as much as the film may show the terror that grips the nation, it equally demonstrates the fallen beauty of this castle of sand that make it an oddly appealing place to be. While the cinematography in the film is largely quite standard, it does do an excellent job in capturing the beauty of the nation and showing how it is not just some wasteland of violence and terrorism. Rather, it is a place that once was one of splendor and gold. Underlining this with the production design inside a luxurious home that the men stay in a few times, the film juxtaposes one room with the room. One room shows the great decadence that the nation once possessed, while the other is torn apart with chairs missing legs. While not always the greatest war film, Sand Castle’s commitment to showing the beauty of the country and celebrating those who are good people caught in the crossfire of war is incredibly admirable.

Brotherhood. Compared to many older war films, modern takes on war seem to just devolve into a hail of bullets with no emotional core the film. While this is partially the case with Sand Castle, its commitment to developing each of its soldiers into real men with personality is what gives this film some legs to stand on compared to classics. The camaraderie between men such as Burton and Enzo, or even the flashes of personality and fun to be found in the base camp of Captain Syverson (Henry Cavill), the film shows the bond between the men. With the men, all passionate about keeping each other safe, sharing juvenile jokes, and trying to make light of their dark situation as best they can, the film’s characterization of this men is terrific and gives the film a strong foundation. Coupled with good acting, especially from Cavill, Knapp, Marshall-Green, and Brown Jr., Sand Castle is a film about the Iraq War to be sure, but also about the impact it has on the men involved. As it was written by a veteran, it is obvious that the film would focus on this brotherhood element and excel at displaying the unspoken unity in the camp, and Sand Castle delivers both throughout.

Telegraphed punches. Yet, unfortunately, this emotional core is mostly stamped out when the film consistently telegraphs its punches. Director Fernando Coimbra largely lacks any subtlety as his camera will often drift away from the men and focus on something seemingly innocuous. The conversation will randomly shift to this innocuous occurrence and, suddenly, a bomb goes off. Sucking the power and emotion out of these moments, Sand Castle relies on foreshadowing far too much to the point that it entirely cancels out much of the brotherhood it displays. Though the characters make us care about them, we know when somebody will die long before the film actually shows it and, as such, it lacks any sort of emotional punch or shock. It is a film from a director who seems to know how a war film should look and feel but fails to understand what makes it actually work. As a result, he relies upon build tension through heavy-handed foreshadowing in an effort to close that gap, but only winds up doing too much.

Cliched and standard. In addition to the issues regarding foreshadowing, Sand Castle is also plagued by cliches and seems to just run through the playbook of war films. From scenes of men lifting weights, talking about girls back home, their gruff and tough leaders, and then scenes of battle behind vehicles as they wait for heads to poke out, Sand Castle is very much a “been there, done that” type of film. While its aforementioned usage of the water supply issue as a microcosm of the war itself is somewhat inspired, it is drowned out by moments that feel copy and pasted from better war films. As with the Vietnam War movie, movies set during the Gulf/Iraq/Afghanistan wars all seem to be very similar stylistically and this one never tries to change the formula. It simply takes its orders, never questions them, and then tosses the men out in a hostile village surrounded by invisible sniper fire.  The way in which its story is told never seems to live up to the ambitions of its message, as the scenes are ones that we've seen before and contributed to the film’s lack of gravitas and power. 

Confused depiction of Iraqis. Though directed by a Brazilian with a mixed American and British cast, Sand Castle can still rely on the tried and true Americana approach to war filmmaking. That is, the Americans’ faults are swept under the rug in favor of focusing on how they try to help and free the people of Iraq only to be met with pushback by people who do not even carry guns or bombs. Nobody wants them there and yet the innocent Americans just keep trying to make things better for them. Considering that the film tries to show the human side to Iraq and how the people there are not just nameless Arabs who hate America but are people who are struggling and just to survive, this overly positive portrayal of the American soldiers is troubling. It is especially worrisome when compared to the film’s constant display of any Iraqi being a potential hostile. Relatively innocent people are constantly patted down and the men let them go, only for them to later show up with a gun ready to kill the soldiers. While it takes more time to develop positive figures in Iraq, it largely gets wiped out by the film’s depiction of every Iraqi as mere ticking time bombs just waiting to go off. In a recognition of this issue, Sand Castle introduces some apparent throwaway lines about free college in Iraq to try and show how we could stand to learn something from this country. Yet, it comes off as far too heavy handed and forced to truly work. The end result is an unclear message about the treatment of Iraqis. Though it argues that not all Iraqis are bad and tries to show that good element, it continuously justifies innocent people being treated like terrorists because of the belief that any Iraqi could be radicalized against the United States. Its attempts to preach acceptance and understanding falter as a result of this embracing of cultural stereotypes.


Though ambitious in trying to define the war as a whole with its central conflict in one Iraqi village, Sand Castle is too cliched and contrived to actually work. Feeling oddly unfinished and unrealized, the film comes as quickly as it arrives and winds up being a mostly forgettable film as a result.