'The Inspection': A Moving Military Drama
Ever since Stanley Kubrick's classic film Full Metal Jacket was released back in 1987, the idea of what basic training is like for those in the military has been imprinted on the minds of most people. As a result, most people tend to think of basic training as a rigorous, demeaning experience that is led by a Drill Instructor in a wide-brimmed hat that barks orders and insults at the new recruits. With how iconic Full Metal Jacket is, and the fact that its depiction of basic training has been imitated and parodied by numerous other movies and TV shows over the years, it's no wonder that so many people have this singular view of it. While there is certainly some truth to these depictions of basic training, there is often not a lot of nuance within them. But, with The Inspection, the debut feature from writer/director Elegance Bratton, we get a deeply personal, emotional, and insightful view of what basic training is like through the eyes of a gay soldier. It has some of the familiar characteristics of some of the standard portrayals of basic training, but it also subverts some of them, and adds some layers that make it a profoundly affecting film about masculinity, strained familial relationships, and perseverance.
The film is a semi-autobiographical account of Elegance Bratton's own experiences as he goes through basic training for the Marine Corps. Much like Bratton, the film's protagonist, Ellis French (played by Jeremy Pope) is a gay black man who is homeless after being kicked out by his mother, who disapproves of his sexuality. Searching for some sense of purpose and belonging, he decides join the Marines. The film largely takes place at basic training, as French tries to conceal his sexuality, is ridiculed and hazed by a Drill Instructor, and undergoes the challenging process of becoming a Marine.
Bratton's lifts a lot of the details of the story from his own life, but the film never feels self-indulgent or overwrought. It feels so personal and so true to life that you can't help but be touched by it. It is such a different perspective than what we normally see in films like this, and you can feel Bratton's voice and passion all through the film. The film does hit some familiar emotional beats, but it feels more like a case of where some of the details that we have picked up from movies and TV overlap with the reality of basic training, and the film itself comes from a place of truthfulness so that these moments feel more authentic.
While the film's plot largely unfolds at basic training, the film is ultimately about acceptance and finding a place to belong. The strained relationship between French and his mother, which mirrors Bratton's own relationship with his mother, is the backbone of the entire film. There is a feeling of isolation that stems from this, and becomes magnified once French arrives at basic training. Bratton explores this specific idea of feeling isolated for who you are in such a full and rich way that resonates so strongly. The added wrinkle of the film taking place in 2005, when "Don't ask, don't tell" was still in effect, emphasizes these themes even further, as French must hide his sexuality from the other recruits and his drill instructors. This only adds to French's feelings of isolation, but he is so desperate for any sense of camaraderie and belonging that he tries to power through it. There is a scene nearly halfway through the film where French says "If I die in this uniform, I'm a hero to somebody." This line encapsulates the character's motivation so succinctly, and his drive to find somewhere to belong is felt throughout the film.
Jeremy Pope carries a lot of the emotional weight of the film through his performance as French. Pope is an immensely talented actor, and he is phenomenal here. It is such a naturalistic performance, and he captures the nuances of the character and the experiences he has so wonderfully. So much of the film rests on his shoulders, and he is a large part of why the film has the impact that it does. The way he portrays French's journey seems so effortless, and he connects to the character so well. He has so many great scenes throughout the film, and he shows his range by pulling off some of the film's quieter moments and some of its bigger, more dialogue heavy moments. Bratton's dialogue is already great, but Pope, as well as the film's supporting cast, makes it sing. Pope has a couple of great monologues in the film, with one near the end of the film that is especially powerful, and the performance as a whole makes the case for him being one of our most exciting up and coming actors working today.
However, this isn't just the Jeremy Pope show, as the film has some excellent supporting performances. Bokeem Woodbine takes on the archetype of the drill instructor, and gives it some dimension and personality. Woodbine plays Leland Laws, the tough, forceful drill instructor who targets French repeatedly throughout the film. It would be easy for an actor to take on this kind of role and basically do what R. Lee Ermey does in Full Metal Jacket, but this is not that kind of movie, and Bokeem Woodbine is not that kind of actor. Woodbine is one of the greatest character actors of the past few decades, and he is so great at embodying the characters he plays. With Laws, he feels like a real drill instructor, and has this authenticity to him that highlights the meaner, rougher aspects of the role. He is intimidating all throughout the film, and he does so in a highly realistic way. I also enjoyed Raul Castillo's performance as Rosales, another drill instructor who has a less abrasive approach than Laws. Castillo has been popping up more and more over the years, and he is becoming an actor that I like seeing in things. This might be my favorite performance of his to date, as he gives a quiet, yet effective turn, and provides a fair amount of heart in the film. He is particularly good in the scenes between him and French, and the dynamic between him and Pope in these moments is quite solid.
Perhaps the film's biggest surprise comes in the form of Gabrielle Union. She is likely to get the most attention out of the whole cast for her work here, as she is playing against type and gives a knockout performance. She isn't in all that much of the film, but when she shows up, she makes a big impact. She portrays French's mother, Inez, who disapproves of his sexuality and is worried about his choice to join the Marines. Union walks a fine line with her character, balancing the love that a mother has for their son with the hatred she has for who he is. She manages to nail the balance, and gives a career-best performance in the process. She has a scene near the end that is incredible, and has a specific line delivery in this moment that crushed me. I hope she gets more chances to play complex characters like she's playing here, as she is clearly capable of much more than most people give her credit for.
The Inspection is a powerful film from start to finish, and so much of that is due to how much passion and heart Elegance Bratton puts into it. He takes his own experiences and weaves a personal story that is heartwrenching and somewhat hopeful. This story is so important to who Bratton is, and he is rather fearless in portraying it as realistically as possible. It doesn't feel editorialized, and it doesn't feel like a vanity project. It feels like a story that deserves to be told, and one that should strike a chord with audiences. There are so many potent themes that Bratton explores throughout the film, and they are done in such a moving way. It is easily one of the more cathartic films I've seen this year, and a solid debut for Elegance Bratton. This is the type of film that I sincerely hope will find a large audience due to how powerful and perceptive it is, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It might feel familiar on its surface, but it ends up being a singular tale of embracing oneself, and finding belonging in unexpected places.