If one conducted a day-long survey of random persons from any given major metropolitan street, and asked them to name the biggest polluter in the country, it’s doubtful that the Department of Defense’s name would come up at all, and if it did then almost certainly one wouldn’t need a second hand to keep track of that tally. And yet that’s the central assertion of Semper Fi: Always Faithful, a damning new documentary about drinking water contaminants at a military training base spanning a period of 30 years. At once emotionally powerful and a little more under-sketched than one might like it to be, the film is a frustrating yet nonetheless engaging and heartrending entry in the all-too-swollen canon of social-justice nonfiction films.
A presentation at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, where it won an editing award and was runner-up in the Audience Award balloting, co-directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon’s movie tells the story of toxic cleaning chemicals that were improperly disposed of at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, beginning in 1957 and stretching well into the 1980s. The result was that nearly one million Marines and their families were exposed to high levels of carcinogens through drinking water drawn from wells on the base, and when the Marine Corps eventually closed the toxic wells they compounded their sins by never making the contamination public. Using technology to connect, a group of committed ex-Marines — many of whom have lost children, and some of whom are now sick themselves — work together and try to bring about long-delayed justice.
Semper Fi undeniably has emotional punching power, largely courtesy of one of its chief subjects, Jerry Ensminger, a former Master Sergeant and drill instructor for nearly 25 years. When he recollects his dying daughter — who had for weeks resisted any pain medication — asking for a morphine shot to be shared with him, because she knew her dad was in pain too, it is absolutely devastating. If there are failings, it’s that Libert and Hardmon do not construct a particularly strong narrative backbone beyond the chronological one attached to the quest fronted by Ensminger, or, frankly, attempt to expand their story beyond the limits of an emotional cudgel.
Neither do they make a deeply persuasive case for the potential reasons (or, indeed, the existence) of widespread military environmental abuses, or broad misconduct and cover-up. Simply tossing up title cards that indicate there are “130 contaminated military sites” in the United States, and pointing out that one in 10 Americans lives within 10 miles of a military base does not do justice to the gravity of Semper Fi‘s central story. While it’s understandable that the narrative is partially impacted by the fact that the story is still ongoing and unfolding (a bill mandating that the DOD notify all those who stayed at Camp Lejeune during the impacted timeframe is awaiting a final Congressional vote, and has been since February 2010), Libert and Hardmon don’t dig quite deep enough.
They’re content to stay with the activists, and while their journeys are all engaging on a human level, the film’s basic failure to aggressively seek out the contrasting point-of-view means that a viewer leaves uncertain as to whether this is all part of a sinister, coordinated cover-up, mere bureaucratic incompetence unrelated to government, or actually part of a larger military-culture “code of silence” in which the notion of honest, greater-good whistle-blowing, or standing up to and reporting problems up the chain of command, is not merely frowned upon but beaten into submission. Semper Fi tells one hell of a story, but unfortunately it’s just not the complete one. For more information on the film and its subjects, click here. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, meanwhile, click here. (Wider Film Projects/Chicken and Egg Pictures, unrated, 76 minutes)