Despite its minimally budgeted production and feel-bad subject matter, Semper Fi: Always Faithful attempts to shoehorn itself into the broadly crowd-pleasing documentary format made fashionable during the past decade. The resulting tonal inconsistencies are as frequently moving in their evocation of intimate quotidian plainness as they are stifling of what should have been an act of white-hot rage. As a political act, Semper Fi hews closer to the spinelessness of your average elected Democrat.
Concerning the water contamination that existed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina from 1957 to 1987 and the roughly one million people it’s believed to have affected, this cinematic expose follows Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger—dedicated Marine and former Camp Lejeune resident who saw his nine-year-old daughter die of a rare form of childhood leukemia—as he fights to have nothing less than for the Marines to admit their cover-up, contact anyone who was potentially contaminated, and supply medical care to all in need. It would take decades for the grieving sergeant to discover the potential source of his child’s illness, and the slowly revealed concentration of ailments (including the highest frequency of male breast cancer ever found) incurred by the camp’s former residents would suggest something rather conclusive. No, say the military spokespersons, whose predecessors long ago ignored external reports of dangerous contaminants in the Lejeune community well. Similarly dismissive of common sense are the scientists later seen gathering to officially classify certain substances, most of which are accepted as being dangerous to animals, as human carcinogens or not, no doubt with wads of drug-company money lining their bank accounts.
Semper Fi is chock-full of useful information about these disturbing manifestations of capitalism run amok (one in 10 Americans live within 10 miles of a contaminated military site), but it would have done better to skip the hand-holding initiation of audience members less than keen on the possibility that their government doesn’t much give a shit about them and instead dig deeper into the core issues at hand: profits versus compassion, short term gains versus long term detriments, the wants of the haves versus the needs of the have-nots. At 76 minutes, the film already feels stretched, and there’s almost no limit to the material that could have been utilized to fuel the fire the film purports to light. A good way to judge a country is to examine how it treats its heroes. Whether it’s the 9/11 rescue workers being refused treatment for cancer or the countless military personnel being abused in life and death, the evidence provided by modern-day America points to one answer. A brave film, Semper Fi nevertheless remains an inadequate railing against the abusive powers that be.