SGT. Will Gardner: Bad Breaks, by Sarah Brinks
People often say that movies should show, not tell. SGT. Will Gardner not only shows, it also tells, and sometimes hammers the point home with a country music song. The film is about a very important topic that needs attention so it is hard to criticize it but it really suffers from a heavy-handed script. The film follows a homeless veteran, Sergeant Will Gardner, played by writer and director Max Martini, as he takes off from California on a cross-country road trip to see his son in New Mexico. SGT. Will Gardner highlights many of the problems veterans face when returning home, especially after experiencing trauma or injury. Gardner suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) while serving in the Iraq War. As a result, he has a hard time holding down a job, has a debilitating drinking habit, and also has hallucinations of his best friend who died in the war.
There are a lot of good things about the film. The performances are mostly very strong and help save some of the more challenging moments in the script. Martini is an actor whose work I have enjoyed in the past and is often a draw for me. He does his best while juggling his responsibilities as lead, director, and writer on the film. This is clearly a passion project for Martini. For his first time directing a feature film, he does a nice job. The film looks good and keeps us grounded as we move through the country with Gardner. The only time I felt a little lost was during the flashbacks to a battle in Iraq but that could have been an intentional choice given how chaotic battle can be. As an actor, Martini puts everything he has into Gardner. The scenes where he hallucinates his old war buddy, played wonderfully by Omari Hardwick, are some of the best and most brutal. Early in the film, you see Gardner drinking like it is his job just to try and block out his memories. Martini puts it all on the screen and it is powerful to watch.
The best performance in the film is from Lily Rabe as Mary-Anne Mackey. We meet Mary-Anne as she dramatically quits her job and storms out. She begins a road trip to Albuquerque in her Prius and spots Gardner on his motorcycle a number of times along the way. She mistakes him for Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston. The film cleverly shows her Googling Cranston and finding a picture of him with a full beard that could look like Gardner. They have a sporadic love affair with her thinking he is Cranston until the end of their relationship. Every time Rabe is on the screen, she brings much needed life to the film. Her character is completely secondary to the main plot but I am grateful she’s there to bring some levity and energy to the film.
A few other performances that stand out are the aforementioned Omari Hardwick as the dead soldier Top. Hardwick deftly handles the challenge of playing a hallucination. His presence in scenes helps ground some of the more challenging aspects of the film. It also allows the Gardner character to express some of the things he doesn’t want to admit out loud but through another character’s voice. Gardner’s nickname in the army was Ghost but, in an early scene, Top really feels like a ghost who has to watch his friend destroy himself with alcohol and regret. Gary Sinise appears briefly. His charity for veterans is mentioned at the end of the film so perhaps this was a passion project for him as well. Sinise is always a welcome presence in a film so, even though his screen time is brief, he brings a lot to his performance.
My two biggest problems with the script are that characters make big emotional leaps in very short spans of time and the heavy-handed conversations about patriotism, which take you right out of the film. The best example of the first problem is when Gardner shows up in New Mexico and finds his son. Gardner’s ex-wife, Kimmy, freaks out and screams at him to get away from her son. Then, when her husband comes home, she meets him outside the house to warn him that Gardner is there. She is clearly nervous and maybe scared about Gardner’s presence in the house. Then the next day at a baseball field, she holds his hand and tells him that she still loves him and would run away with him. It is very contradictory to what we had already seen.
Heavy-handed conversations about patriotism happen throughout the film. There isn’t a doubt in my mind that we owe our veterans a great debt and that their sacrifice is honorable. However, patriotism is a complicated idea and, especially given the current political climate, you cannot distill it into simple terms anymore. Gardner’s son says he wants to be a Navy Seal and Gardner says all he needs to be a soldier is to “love your country.” After everything that Gardner has gone through in Iraq and is still going through, for him to say that to his young son feels disingenuous. There are many more times when a very black and white view of patriotism and service is just stated out loud and it always feels forced and declarative.
One aspect of the script that works is the use of voice-over to read poetry throughout the film. Gardner is constantly reading throughout the film and Martini uses the poetry to help us understand Gardner and what he is thinking about. The poetry often helps move us from scene to scene and I like the choice a lot.
As I stated at the start of the review, the challenges that veterans face are very real and, as the end note of the film states, there are hundreds of thousands of veterans who have been diagnosed with TBIs and many of them die while waiting for their healthcare claims to be processed, not to mention rampant veteran suicide. The issues raised by the film are extremely important but the film itself is often too heavy-handed in how these issues are addressed. There is enough good in the film that it is worth seeing but be prepared to swallow some tough dialogue and character beats. The film also mentions three charities that aid veterans: Gary Sinise Foundation, Higher Ground, and Warriors Heart.