Doc of the Day: Semper Fi: Always Faithful Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Semper Fi: Always Faithful

Posted in Days of Docs by - April 23, 2012

 The military poisoned them. So they fought back.

Dir. Tony Hardmon & Rachel Libert, 2011, 75 min

With corporations and government in bed together, screwing over hundreds or thousands of people at a time with their negligence, legal David and Goliath stories are depressingly common. Recent changes to tort law make it increasingly hard for the average citizen to take a business or institution to task for wronging him or her (see the great doc Hot Coffee to get the facts about “frivolous” lawsuits). Such struggles have become a popular subject for documentaries, almost to the point of over-saturation. But even in a crowded “genre,” Semper Fi: Always Faithful manages to stand out and leave a strong impression.

The film does so by being extremely straightforward in its presentation, and trusting its story and characters to do its work. And it’s a doozy of a story. From 1957-1987, the water at the Lejeune Marine Corps Base Camp was toxic, rife with chemicals that the military had improperly disposed of. As many as a million people who lived on the base during this time came into contact with these pollutants. The military knew, but at first did nothing, and then tried to cover it up when the consequences of their actions became clear.

In 1985, Master Sergeant Jerry Ensminger’s six-year-old daughter Janey died of leukemia. Over two decades later, when he learned of the coverup at Camp Lejeune, Ensminger realized there was a possible connection. As he did more research, he learned how intricate the military’s efforts to bury the truth were. He found more and more people affected by their time at Lejeune; dead children and rare forms of cancer in astonishing frequency. But worst of all, when they tried to demand compensation from the government, it stonewalled them. But the Marine Corps taught them to fight, and fight they did.

Semper Fi takes place in a world of omnipresent bereavement. Our protagonists have all suffered awful loss, and they’re searching for some form of justice to sate their pain. They can’t regain what they’ve lost, but they can try to make sure that the same thing doesn’t happen to anything else. The sad thing, and something that the film doesn’t address, is that it most certainly will happen again. That’s the nature of the system.

The Marines’ quest for justice brings them into conflict with business interests, who face negative financial impact if the chemicals involved in the case get reclassified as “known carcinogens.” They do what they always do, bringing in overwhelming resources and manpower against which the commoner is drastically outmatched. And yet, without spoiling anything (I know it’s absurd to “spoil” contemporary events, but whatever), this movie actually gets to end on a happy note. Sometimes the good guys win, although the battle is more hard-fought than it should have to be.

The doc is almost too dour at times, and occasionally verges on melodrama. Hearing Sergeant Ensminger talk about his daughter’s last days of life is legitimately affecting; hearing him talk about how she promised she would be in every rainbow after her death, and then talking to a rainbow as if it were her, is maudlin. For a film characterized by its tonal restraint, the moments when it loses control stand out all the more.

But those moments are few, and Semper Fi mostly earns its emotion. There’s a reason that the David and Goliath narrative is so popular in documentaries. Every victory for the little guy feels like a chink in the armor of the faceless corporations, whether or not it really is. Until we hopefully rise up and put fetters on capitalism, stories like this will have to do.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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