'The Inspection' review: A stirring biographical, queer military drama
Courtesy of A24
On the surface, writer/director Elegance Bratton’s rousing biographical military drama “The Inspection,” might seem cut from the same cloth as “A Few Good Men,” or the first hour of “Full Metal Jacket” where a hardened sergeant brings his recruits to their breaking points and almost kills them. But “The Inspection” isn’t an ordinary military drama, it has a cadence, perspective, and nuance those aforementioned movies didn’t have. And the results, though somewhat stiff and conflicting on what exactly it’s trying to say, offer a simmering portrait of the lengths some are willing to go in order to serve our country. It also features one of the best performances of the year from rising star Jeremy Pope.
The film chronicles Bratton’s own experiences as a queer Black man who entered the Marines to both make something of himself and appease his traditional mother (played here by Gabrielle Union in arguably her finest acting work) who doesn’t approve of her son’s homosexual lifestyle. In fact, the first thing mom says to the main character, Ellis (Pope) when he comes looking for his birth certificate is: “Are you in trouble?” It’s heartbreaking to think the only pathway Ellis sees at reconnecting with his mother is by going through the unmitigated hellscape that is basic training under the guise of a straight man with nothing to lose. It’s powerful as it is gut-wrenching.
“The Inspection” peels back the layers of systemic abuse and malpractice that happens behind the Marine fortress. There’s a methodical approach Bratton, in his directorial debut, brings to the film as he unravels this isolated world where dehumanization, shower brawls, physical assaults, and attempted drowning are not only sanctioned, but encouraged. That’s because Ellis’ stern drill sergeant, a Gulf war veteran with four confirmed kills played with snarky glee by Bokeem Woodbine, doesn’t care what the book says. “I will break you” he happily declares as the recruits leap off the bus.
These cinematic elements may seem familiar, anyone who’s ever seen a war movie, or has served, knows that basic training is, for lack of a better word, a bitch. But “The Inspection” offers a conflicting viewpoint that at times stands in contrast with the overall message. As Ellis becomes the primary punching bag of his platoon, literally and metaphorically (save for a compassionate sergeant played by Raul Castillo), why not report the behavior and be transferred elsewhere? He almost dies. On one hand, it wants us to be angry at the establishment, but on the other, in Ellis’ path to recovery, it wants to celebrate it.
The movie takes place during the immediate aftermath of 9/11, which also makes an Islamic recruit (played by Eman Esfandi) equally a target, not to mention “don’t ask, don’t tell” was a prominent talking point in the media. Except Bratton isn’t keen on exploring how military leadership allowed homophobic and racist personalites to train cadets, and instead keeps the focus on his unwavering strength in the face of extreme adversity. His film is not looking for answers so much it's seeking an emotional response.
In the film’s closing moments, Bratton dedicates the movie to his mother even though she never supported his true self. I have to imagine that it took more compassion and resilience than anything he endured during his years in the military, but the remarkable beauty, and scope of his story, is that he found forgiveness when nobody else would.
THE INSPECTION opens in theaters Friday, December 2nd.