While the testosterone-pumped film “Top Gun: Maverick” may currently hold the spot as the highest grossing movie of 2022, this year still holds another approach to the military tale: one that’s poignant and vibrant in its tender honesty.
From director Elegance Bratton, “The Inspection” follows a Black gay man who enlists in the Marines to find himself and forge a relationship with his estranged mother. While most military epics arm themselves with the grandiosity of sweeping aerial shots of military hangers and hundreds of marching men, Bratton’s debut film is contained — insular even — as the camera refreshingly centers only on a small recruit troop at an isolated training center in South Carolina. Alongside wrestling the grueling process of Marine training, Elliss French (Jeremy Pope) perseveres through near-fatal hazing to carve out unexpected camaraderie with his troop, forming a visceral story of humanity unfolding in the most unlikely of places.
Pope delivers a heartfelt, genuine performance that interweaves soft, youthful longing with a grueling reality. On the bus to the training hanger, Eliss offers fellow recruit Ismail (Eman Esfandi) his food after seeing the boy also isolated. As Eliss casually jumps into the seat next to him, Ismail gratefully smiles back in a small moment of calm. Beginning their companionship, the two ride together towards their impending training and the grueling path to becoming a marine.“The Inspection” is at its best with these small moments of bravery; Eliss finds his footing not as a booming war hero, but as an endearing figure of determination.
While “The Inspection” is a callous tribute to the Marines, Bratton never hesitates to shine an honest light on the homophobia perpetuated by the system. The film is in constant dialogue with masculinity and queerness, illustrating each as entangled within the military complex Eliss defies. In a particularly striking moment, the young recruit imagines himself stepping into the communal showers — the men sprawled over each other, multicolored lights bathing exposed torsos and entangled limbs. Just as the scene crescendos, Eliss is snatched out of the fantasy, beaten by his fellow recruits for his resulting physical display of arousal.
Grainy shots of muted green uniforms and South Carolina’s sprawling blue sky compose the landscape of the isolated boot camp, painting a quieter, understated portrait of military training. Paired with an angelic, organ-filled soundtrack, “The Inspection” places a personal, introspective and markedly queer lens on military life.
While “The Inspection” may appear to be the antithesis of Hollywood’s military epics, the film earnestly follows the familiar underdog recruit narrative that marks the genre. At times, the narrative almost stretches itself too thin, wavering between a more avante-garde take on Bratton’s desires and the classic military narrative it traverses. Several more experimental scenes documenting Eliss’ vivid imagination, while beautifully constructed, feel out of place when interspersed with his familiar underdog arc. Often, cliche lines such as “If we leave, they win” clash with the film’s textured, multilayered tone. “The Inspection” can’t quite seem to decide if it’s taking on a more conceptual illustration of queerness in the military or a classic Hollywood story, instead opting to awkwardly mesh the two together.
Eliss’ determination is only heightened by his estranged relationship with his mother Inez French (Gabrielle Union), who refuses to acknowledge his sexuality. Speaking on the few, yet emotionally weighted, scenes with French, Bratton said, “All of that is ripped directly out of my life”.
While the film may revolve around Ellis’ isolated military camp, Inez is the foundation of his resolute story. Union’s performance is heart-wrenching as a mother coming to terms with her son’s identity, and moments featuring the pair often feel the most riveting, vivid in execution and detail.
“The Inspection” offers an investigation into a deeply personal, defining journey. While at times blurred in direction, Bratton invites the viewer to strive towards the seemingly unachievable with a shining, brutal honesty that holds high promise for his debut film.