Review by James Lindorf
Iraq War veteran Will Gardner (Max Martini) is making his best attempt at civilian life while coping with PTSD and the effects of a traumatic brain injury sustained in combat. His PTSD causes frequent flashbacks to the Iraq War which he survives by having regular conversations with Sam (Omari Hardwick), his best friend and brother in arms. After a series of setbacks, Will sets off on a journey across America on a stolen motorcycle with the goal of reuniting with his son. Martini (13 Hours, Captain Phillips) also wrote and directed SGT. Will Gardner which will be available on January 11th.
It is clear the amount of reverence Martini has for the men and women who serve our country. The film opens with a five-minute voiceover from Martini. This isn’t a standard voiceover that sets up the story either, it is a reading of “The Road Not Taken” followed by a Sir Francis Drake prayer. It becomes even more apparent when you combine that with the fact that the character of Will was written to near saint-like levels whose flaws barely impact his day-to-day life. The fact that his flashbacks and self-medicating with alcohol don’t affect the main story puts a wall up separating the two facets of Will from each other and preventing us from seeing Will as a fully developed character.
While the script could have used another set of hands or a second draft to flesh out the characters and the story, first-time solo director Martini nailed the technical aspect of the film. Will’s journey through the southwest is beautifully shot and complemented by the soundtrack. The other bright spots for the film are its supporting cast which includes Lily Rabe, Robert Patrick, Elisabeth Röhm, and Dermot Mulroney. However, despite the flair that they bring to their characters, the best scene goes to Gary Sinise as a sympathetic bartender and JoBeth Williams as a fragile barfly who build Will up after his trip starts to take a downward turn.
In the end, SGT. Will Gardner was a valiant effort to highlight the difficulties faced by returning service men and women. Unfortunately, beautiful imagery and good intentions aren’t enough to save a thin script that collapses under the weight of its subject matter. While not a failure, Martini wasn’t able to help the film be all it could be.