The Times Herald (Norristown, PA)

Review: ‘The Inspection’ is a strikingly personal portrait of the military under ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

- By Justin Chang

At the beginning of “The Inspection,” Elegance Bratton’s stirringly intimate drama about a gay Black man in the U.S. military, one personal hell is exchanged for another. The man’s name is Ellis (he’s played by Jeremy Pope), though as a Marine recruit, he’s referred to most often by his surname, French — a single syllable that, as barked repeatedly by his superiors and fellow recruits, begins to sound like a taunt. It’s 2005, and with “don’t ask, don’t tell” still very much in effect, Ellis’ boot camp experience becomes that much more nightmaris­h a crucible. It also opens a window into a hyper-regimented world that, as one drill sergeant observes in a rare unguarded moment, couldn’t exist without the gay servicepeo­ple whose very existence it denies.

The movie’s title is thus doubly apt: Ellis and his fellow soldiers must pass various examinatio­ns on a routine basis, but for a little more than 90 minutes, it’s the U.S. military apparatus itself that Bratton inspects and finds thoroughly wanting. But he’s also taking a long, hard look at his own memories, many painful, some inspiring. Ellis’ story is a version of Bratton’s own — a connection the director reinforces when the young recruit learns, toward the end of basic training, that he’s cut out for a career in photograph­y and filmmaking. “The Inspection,” Bratton’s first feature after a string of short films, marks the latest fulfillmen­t of that promise.

It begins with Ellis, 25, homeless and desperate, dropping in on his mother, Inez (a stunning Gabrielle Union), after a long absence. He needs his birth certificat­e so he can enlist, and within just a few minutes, through tense silences, spare dialogue and an abundance of visual details, an entire backstory of estrangeme­nt and rejection slips into focus. The stray photograph­s and other mementos from Ellis’ childhood scattered around this cramped apartment tell some of that story, as do Inez’s cop uniform and the mix of fatigue, contempt and cold fury in her gaze. Ellis tries to meet that gaze with his own pleading eyes, desperate in their need for love and approval.

Bratton keeps you focused on those eyes, which seem all the larger and more painfully expressive once Ellis has his head shaved and his service begins. He’s an exemplary recruit, evincing a physical stamina that earns him the early approval of his commanding officer, the fittingly named Laws (a steely, measured Bokeem Woodbine), and makes a rival of his hotheaded squad leader (McCaul Lombardi). Years on the streets have toughened

Ellis as much as they’ve depleted him; they’ve also fueled his determinat­ion to push past his limits. But for all his strength and endurance, it’s his body that betrays him early on in the showers, where Ellis — and Bratton — indulge in the first of a few gauzy, slowmotion fantasy sequences. Before he knows it, Ellis’ homoerotic daydream has landed him in a banal homophobic nightmare.

The brutal bullying that he subsequent­ly faces — he’s assaulted, ostracized, sabotaged and pelted with anti-gay slurs — is rightly painful to watch, but Bratton refuses to make an exaggerate­d spectacle of his own suffering. He’s fascinated by the psychologi­cal underpinni­ngs of systemic bigotry, and he can’t help but make his designated villains compelling. Laws despises Ellis for his sexuality, but the movie, without sanctionin­g his actions, allows him to articulate (perhaps a bit too bluntly) his rationale. If his relentless abuse forces this young recruit to quit, he argues, that’s all to the good; if Ellis proves resilient enough to endure it, that may be even better.

Like a lot of movies structured around the rituals of basic training, this one naturally invites comparison­s to “Full Metal Jacket.” But life isn’t all barked orders and grueling regimens. For one, there’s that aforementi­oned drill sergeant, Rosario (an affecting Raúl Castillo), who from the beginning lays a surprising­ly protective hand on Ellis’ shoulder. (Unsurprisi­ngly, he also becomes the principal object of Ellis’ desire.) But while Rosario may be a kinder, more sympatheti­c leader than Laws, their priorities are not, in the end, terribly different: They both see it as their job to produce the toughest, most formidable class of Marines possible.

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