For Love of Country, by Sarah Brinks
I always love when a movie makes me ask myself what I would “fall on my sword for”… family, friendship, country? Allegiance hints at the question but it never successfully commits to digging into the character motivations, outside pressures, or relationships that would make a person find out the answer. Allegiance is set in October 2004 and focuses on a group of National Guard Servicemen who are being shipped to Iraq the next day for an eighteen-month deployment. This is a group of men who believed the posters when they signed up that it would be one weekend a month, and now they have to leave their lives and go into one of the most dangerous place on earth for over a year and a half. One can only begin to imagine the feelings that situation would conjure.
The film begins with Lieutenant Danny Sefton returning to Camp Sullivan in New York the day before deployment. He has secured himself a transfer to a public relations unit that is not deploying. We see that Sefton is the man on base that can get people things, can make deals, and make arrangements on behalf of other soldiers. He has arranged for a “compassionate reassignment” for a fellow officer Specialist Chris Reyes whose son was just diagnosed with stage four terminal lung cancer. Since Reyes’ transfer would leave the unit without a capable medic in Iraq, his reassignment is denied at the last minute. Furious, Reyes confronts Sefton and says he wants to go AWOL. Meanwhile Seftons’ replacement has arrived and is a West Point graduate Lieutenant Alec Chambers. Chambers is a by the book officer who has already seen combat in the Middle East and was hit by shrapnel and sent home. Sefton’s transfer caused him to be called back up for active duty.
Allegiance is an uneven film. There are aspects of it that I really liked and aspects that just didn’t work for me. The film is competently made; however there is this strange bluish-grey filter used in all the daytime shots that makes it look like it was shot on Venus. Also the story is compelling but something about the pacing never makes it feel urgent. I think if you got to know all the characters a little better or thoroughly grasped the consequences of Reyes going AWOL it would have upped the stakes.
The casting is also uneven and I think is a big part of why the film fell flat. Sefton is played by Seth Gabel (Fringe fans will recognize him as Lincoln Lee). Gabel holds his own in the film but he never quite seems slimy enough to be the self-serving jerk he is painted as or self-less enough to risk his career and freedom for Reyes. Bow Wow (yes, the rapper Bow Wow) plays Reyes. Bow Wow is a weakest of the cast. He is never believable as a father, a soldier, or a medic. You need to root for Reyes in order to invest in the film; I did not connect with him at all and thus was underwhelmed by the film. The most famous face in the film is Aidan Quinn who plays Lieutenant Colonel Owens. He only has a couple scenes in the film but unlike most of the cast he has the chops to demand your attention while he is onscreen. The best performance in the film is from Pablo Schreiber as Chambers. He is believable as a career officer and also as a young man who has accepted his duty and destiny. He is also responsible for the best scene in the film. You see Chambers going through all of his gear. He checks each piece of it to make sure that it is all functioning and not damaged. He checks buckles and straps, checks his ammunition, opens canteens, etc. It is short but powerful scene. You know that his character has been in combat and knows all the things that can go wrong and how life threatening a malfunctioning buckle can be under fire. At the end of the scene Chambers sits on his bunk and listens to a voicemail from a young woman asking him to come home safe. The juxtaposition of the professional soldier and the personal moment is powerful and what I wish the movie had been able to achieve overall.
This is writer and director Michael Connors first feature-length film. Allegiance is a feature-length version of a short film he wrote and directed named Recalled. Given how little there was to really sink your teeth into with Allegiance I wonder what Recalled was like. I don’t want to disparage Connors though, for a first effort he could have done a lot worse then Allegiance. It is a competently made film that just needed to drop the stupid lighting filters, beef up its story and cast, and loose the sentimental ending.
I will not spoil the ending so I will write in broad strokes, but I think a lot of my issues come from the ending. The film suffers from a serious attack of sentimentality at the end that is not earned. Also the consequences for the actions taken by several characters to try to help Reyes never come into effect. You are told repeatedly in the beginning of the film what will happen to these characters if they try and help Reyes go AWOL and then nothing happens. It all comes back to the magical film criticism term “stakes” and how a lack of “stakes” can kill a film dead.
There are a lot better films out there then Allegiance, but it is also not a waste of your time. When the film is at its best it is worth watching, the rest of the time it mostly just leaves you wanting more.