This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.
“Most movies made about Marines are just bullshit.” Those words come from Leland Laws (Bokeem Woodbine), who should know a thing or two about military-movie tropes, being a hard-bitten drill sergeant who pushes his recruits to their limits. But they could just as easily belong to writer-director Elegance Bratton, who has made The Inspection based on his own experiences in the United States Marine Corps—specifically, his 2005 entry into the Corps, leading to five years of service. No wonder, then, that his film feels more immersed in that experience, less beholden to some grander narrative. Boot camp is so often relegated to a montage or a segment of a military picture; The Inspection is more akin to a boarding-school melodrama, albeit with a particularly demanding and punishing regimen.
Yet for all the hostility encountered by Ellis French (Jeremy Pope), he has enlisted with the Marines very much by choice; we don’t see anyone in his life pressuring him to join up. In the film’s brief pre-training scenes, he visits his estranged mother Inez (Gabrielle Union) to tell her the news (and pick up his birth certificate), and it becomes clear that he hopes to both prove himself to her, and provide for himself in ways she can’t. This scene also clarifies the reason for their estrangement: Inez, a prison officer, refuses to accept her son’s homosexuality. Ellis, at 25, is well past attempting to hide it.
The 2005 military, however, is still hovering around the middle ground of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Ellis obliges, though this isn’t a movie about concealing that secret. As played by Pope, Ellis shows some comfort in his skin, even as his mother causes him to question his self-worth. Relatively early on, his fellow recruits pick up on his queerness—which is not to say they’re accepting. Laws in particular kicks his cruelty into overdrive. When the far more sympathetic officer Rosales (Raúl Castillo) objects, Laws holds his ground, insisting that post-9/11, it’s his job to make these men into “monsters.”
Somewhat surprisingly, The Inspection isn’t an indictment of that system, even with nearly two decades of hindsight. Though it’s clear enough from the movie itself, Bratton mentioned at a New York Film Festival press conference that he doesn’t think of the film as particularly pro- or anti-military, but pro-troop. It’s a somewhat trite position that accounts for the moments that play like lessons in self-actualization—and, for that matter, for the story’s tidy avoidance of combat, keeping its themes about protecting one another safely in, if not the abstract, relatively secure on-screen harbors. (Standing up to fellow trainees is hard, but not as wrenching as having to reckon with young men becoming potential killing machines.)
But one of the best things about Bratton’s movie is the way it depicts both injustice and acceptance on an incremental scale, neither completely relentless nor completely healing: Some alliances and bonds do form, and there’s sweetness in the way Ellis doesn’t yield to military machismo, extending empathy to Ismail (Eman Esfandi), whose Muslim background threatens to make him a target. Bratton also refuses to downplay sexuality to curry favor with that “pro-troops” audience. He recognizes the different forms of connection that can form in these circumstances and finds beauty from unusual vantage points—sometimes literally, in shots where the camera is positioned below Ellis as he jumps a subway turnstile, or dives into a water-rescue exercise.
The intended emotional bookends of The Inspection are less successful. Playing a woman modeled on Bratton’s own mother, the wonderful Union gives her all—and there are times when it appears that Bratton could have asked for less. In her first big scene opposite Pope, she draws out some big, showy moments, turning over her disdain and hesitation; later on, she does even more demonstrative Cigarette Acting, leaving little room for any doubts about Inez’s feelings to creep in. Bratton winds up building his whole movie around a foregone conclusion; it even—somehow, despite its vivid details and well-observed complications—winds up feeling a little pat. For better and worse, The Inspection seems like the movie Bratton had to make, a story so personal that some of its biggest emotional confrontations start to resemble a therapeutic exercise. There’s no shame in some soul-bearing autobiography—nor in looking forward to whatever projects the filmmaker might tackle next, perhaps on a bigger canvas.
Director: Elegance Bratton
Writer: Elegance Bratton
Starring: Jeremy Pope, Raúl Castillo, Bokeem Woodbine, Gabrielle Union, Eman Esfandi
Release Date: November 18, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.