It’s one thing to care about an important social issue and another to successfully dramatize it. Writer-director Max Martini demonstrates the pitfalls with his new film in which he plays the title role of an Iraq War veteran desperately struggling to pick up the pieces of his life after returning home. Well intentioned in the extreme, Sgt. Will Gardner is more effective as PSA than drama.
Martini — who has often played military roles in such films as 13 Hours, Saving Private Ryan and Captain Philips — clearly has a message to convey about the shabby treatment afforded veterans. But this rambling, diffuse drama does his cause no favors. The pic endlessly traffics in the sort of clichés endemic to the genre, from its gung-ho country music soundtrack to its frequent combat flashbacks illustrating the horrors of war.
It’s clear from the story’s beginning that Will Gardner, whose nickname is “Ghost,” is in a bad place. Suffering from a traumatic brain injury, he’s seen being evicted from the building in which he’s been squatting and then is ripped off by his boss (Robert Patrick) who refuses to pay him the money he’s owed. Will steals his employer’s motorcycle in retaliation and embarks on a cross-country road trip in an effort to be reunited with his young son (played by his real-life offspring, Leo Martini). Along the way, he often engages in rambling philosophical discussions with his old war buddy Samuel (Omari Hardwick), whose ability to pop up in unexpected places suggests he may simply be a figment of Will’s imagination.
The central, and most ridiculous, element of the anecdotal storyline concerns Will’s budding romance with Mary-Anne (Lily Rabe), first seen angrily quitting her job in frustration and hitting the road to see Disneyland. Along the way she encounters Will and mistakes him for actor Bryan Cranston. The two become traveling companions, with Mary-Anne apparently unaware that a famous, award-winning actor is unlikely to be traversing the country on a motorcycle and staying in cheap motels.
Will also stops at a watering hole where the bartender (played by Gary Sinise, well known for his devotion to veteran causes) offers the toast, “To the warriors!” There’s also a female Army veteran barfly, played by JoBeth Williams, who has succumbed to the lures of drink and promiscuous sex upon returning home. Will eventually makes his way to his son, who’s being raised by his ex-wife (Elisabeth Rohm) and her new husband (Dermot Mulroney), who isn’t happy about Will’s reappearance.
Although some individual scenes make a strong impression, the film suffers from narrative choppiness and serious credibility issues. Its blending of reality and fantasy is clumsy at best, nearly incomprehensible at worst. Sgt. Will Gardner also suffers from its tendency to tell rather than show, with its characters often engaging in the sort of speechifying more suitable to an editorial page or charity telethon than drama.
The burly, bearded Martini is a formidable screen presence, but he’s ultimately unable to make his character fully explicable. And although the supporting ensemble includes many first-rate actors clearly drawn to the pic’s message, they, too, are unable to compensate for the narrative deficiencies.
As is so often the case with films of this type, Sgt. Will Gardner concludes with graphics of alarming statistics about the plight of American veterans. The figures are sobering and frightening, and pack more of a punch than the two hours preceding them.
Production company: Mona Vista Productions
Cast: Max Martini, Elisabeth Rohm, Lily Rabe, Dermot Mulroney, Robert Patrick, JoBeth Williams, Luis Bordeonada, Leo Martini, Gary Sinise
Director-screenwriter: Max Martini
Producers: Michael Hagerty, Max Martini
Executive producers: Matthew Hanson, Mary Vernieu
Director of photography: Corey Weintraub
Production designer: Jonathan Delaney Marsh
Editor: Tim Silano
Costume designer: Mallory Hemerlein
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd