Every soldier’s Iraq War experience is different. Some hated every minute they were deployed; others never wanted to leave. Some questioned their reason for being there; others were convinced they were fighting the good fight. Some sympathized with the locals; others saw them only as the enemy. But regardless of how they felt about the war, most soldiers agreed that that the situation on the ground was far more complicated than what politicians on both sides of the aisle made it out to be.
Capturing the complexity of the Iraq War, and the range of attitudes among the men and women who fought in it, is a crucial objective for any filmmaker trying to paint an accurate picture of what it was like to be there. It might be impossible to make a truly apolitical war film — especially one about a conflict that hasn’t really ended yet — but, if accuracy is the goal, attempting to do so is a necessary step in the right direction.
Chris Roessner is one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood who knows what it was like to serve in war. A native of Canton, Ohio who grew up in rural Texas, the 33-year-old screenwriter joined the Army when he was 18, a few months before 9/11. Less than two years later, in April 2003, he was crossing the berm into Iraq, where he spent the next 14 months serving with a civil affairs unit attached to the 4th Infantry Division. Today, he describes his deployment to Iraq as “the best and worst thing” that ever happened to him.
Roessner returned home in 2004, enrolled in film school, and immediately got to work writing a script loosely based on his war experience. The final product, “Sand Castle,” directed by Fernando Coimbra and starring Henry Cavill and Nicholas Hoult, premieres on Netflix later this week.
Judging from the trailer, “Sand Castle” might not escape categorization as an “anti-war” film: after all, the story centers on a young machine gunner who tries breaking his own hand to avoid combat; there are scenes of soldiers looking terrified under fire; even the movie’s title implies the futility of the American occupation. This isn’t an epic struggle between good and evil, which will inevitably turn off certain audiences, but Roessner insists that he’s written an apolitical war film. What some people may construe as anti-war, he says, is just, well, the war in Iraq — or at least the version he experienced.
“I care only about writing with as much authenticity as possible what my experience looked like — what it means to be young in a war-torn country,” Roessner told Task & Purpose. “And what it’s like to serve alongside men and women who impress the holy hell out of you”
With “Sand Castle” due to premiere on April 21, we spoke to Roessner about his deployment to Iraq, why “Sand Castle” is different from other films about the war, and how heroizing service members can be ultimately detrimental to mental health. Below is a lightly edited version of that conversation.
You went to film school straight out of the Army. Had that always been your intent, or did you go because you wanted to tell the story of your deployment?
It was always my intent. I wanted to be a filmmaker for a very long time. I don’t know why that’s the case, but even though I grew up in the industrial Rust Belt, I was always drawn to film and literature and stuff like that. So I initially signed up for the military so I could pay for film school. Then when the war happened, I took a pretty big detour, but, in some ways, it turned out to be the best and worst thing that ever happened to be, because it made me a better filmmaker, it gave me a worldview, and something to say before I picked up a camera or started writing a script. That matters.
How would you describe your time in Iraq?
It is simultaneously the best and worst experience that I’ve ever had. It’s both of things. It gave me a deep understanding of what human beings are capable of. It brought me face to face with the limitless potential of the men and women who serve in the armed forces. Also, I can enjoy the rest of my life now, because I feel that I earned the freedoms that are afforded to me thanks to the armed forces. At the same time, when I went to Iraq at 18, 19, it was my first time out of the country, so it gave me a bigger sense of the world, and a bigger understanding of what it means to live in a war-torn country, and how important it is that we build strong institutions here in America and elsewhere that help us account for some of our baser instincts. There’s no easy answer to a question like that, but I saw the best of humanity, and the worst.
Would you say this is an anti-war film?
No, I wouldn’t. I would say that this film is aggressively apolitical, and aggressively not interested in portraying war as good or bad — because, again, my experience is that it’s both of those things simultaneously. I think that the film — in fact, I know, having seen the response to the trailer and some of the other stuff that’s been released — will be a bit of a Rorschach test for people. You will find in this film dozens of things that support your worldview about politics or about war, but you will find just as many things that run counter to your beliefs. I think that’s the strength of the film.
And the reason it works that way is because, again, I care only about writing with as much authenticity as possible what my experience looked like — what it means to be young in a war-torn country, and what it’s like to serve alongside men and women who impress the holy hell out of you, and how you feel small when you see them do these amazing things. I don’t think it’s fair to call it pro war or anti war, but people will call it whatever they want. They’ll see what they want to see, and that will probably say more about them than it will say about the movie.
When we posted the trailer on the Task & Purpose Facebook page, a lot of the commenters were reacting to it as if it was an anti-war film. It was a pretty heated response. Did you see those comments?
Yeah, I did, and I’d be happy to respond. In some regards, like I said, whatever you see in the film will say more about you than the film itself. I think that’s an important point. But I’d also say that I, as a military veteran filmmaker, cannot — it would be foolish for me to try to write a film that exemplifies everybody’s experience. When you go to war, when you serve in the military, your experience is unique to you and your platoon. If I approach this film thinking that my job or my goal to write the film that resonates with every Iraq or Afghanistan war veteran, I would’ve never started. That’s too impossible and it’s too big to bite off. So I would say to anybody who this film doesn’t resonate with, that’s ok. But I hope you write your film; I hope you write your book; I hope you do whatever you possibly can to have your story told. But be warned, it’s hard. It takes years to make it possible, and it’s emotionally battering, and people should keep that in mind.
How closely does this film resemble your own experiences in Iraq?
The events themselves are fictionalized. There are a lot of things that are fictionalized in this film. By the way, I think this is why there’s going to be a visceral response to the film — people are going to assume that I just wrote about my war experience and the events are all the same. That’s not true. My job, as I saw it when I sat down, was the write the American soldier with as much nuance as possible, and write the Iraqi people with as much nuance as possible.
The only thing I was beholden to was the feeling of war. And what war feels like is, you make people fall in love with something, and then you kill it in front of them. That’s what war feels like. The purpose of the film is to make the audience fall in love with these characters, so when they get hurt, or when they die, it hits you emotionally. That’s the goal. A lot of the events that are there, are there to serve that purpose, and that’s sort of it. But if you’re not an artist or a writer, the assumption can be made that what I’m doing is reportage. I’m not interested in reportage at all. If I was, I would’ve written a memoir.
How would you say this film deviates from some of the popular Iraq and Afghan war films?
I wouldn’t begin to assume what the intent was with those other films, because I didn’t make them. But, without naming names, there have been films made where people talk about the Iraq War as like cowboys and Indians, which I found deeply offensive. Because that’s not what my experience was. We needed the Iraqi people to be successful in our particular mission. That was crucial.
Second of all, this film is not a mission movie in the strictest sense. It’s not about take the hill, or kill the bad guy or the sniper, or disarm the bomb. This is about a year at war with young men and women, and I try to be as true to that as possible. That was the only thing that I cared about, and I felt like, if I didn’t take a swing at it, this movie would never exist. So, regardless of how it’s received by the veteran community — and by the way, overwhelmingly positive thus far in the places where we’ve screened it — but I’d say that all I can do is write my experience and not try to build a myth.
I don’t care at all about my own myth. I could’ve written a Captain America version of myself, because I can do that. I can do whatever I want. I’m the writer and it’s my story. I aggressively didn’t do that, because it’s unfair to the people who got hurt and died. That’s the whole ballgame.
Do you think some veterans want to hold on to that myth?
Yeah, some, but I’m no different. When I came back, I was barely 20, and there was an element of, like, I want people to see me a certain way, and I want people to think that I’m tough and all that kind of stuff. But nobody can make me feel that way. That’s up to me. I feel like that myth is what causes a lot of trouble when people who return, and I say this as someone who works with folks who have PTSD. A lot of folks feel guilt, because their myth, their idea of how they want to be seen, is different from how they feel. I think myths are dangerous. Again, some people want to perpetuate that, and that’s fine. That’s their business.
But if those people are hurting at the same time, I bet you that has something to do with it. I spent a lot time killing away that myth for myself. It’s just too dangerous. It hurts too much. You have to look at the totality of your experience with nuance and be proud of what you’ve done, even if there’s a little bit of guilt and shame involved in it.