Told through the eyes of a still-grieving father, Semper Fi: Always Faithful is more than just an Erin Brockovich-style story of the little guy fighting big bad polluters. It's a personal examination on what "closure" really means. Yes, the film's main focus is Jerry Ensminger's quest for tangible and emotional justice, but what resonates more deeply is plight of thousands who simply want the United Stats Marine Corps to admit they did wrong, so they can move on with their lives.
The film is centered around the environmental disaster at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. For nearly 30 years, toxins were being disposed of dangerously and incorrectly, which led to a polluted water supply and a shockingly high rate of childhood cancer for the affected population. One of those affected is Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger. His daughter, Janey, died at the age of nine after a nearly lifelong battle with a rare form of leukemia, and for years—decades, even—Ensminger searched for some kind of answer. When a series of unclassified military documents on the Camp Lejeune water supply were published on the Internet, Ensminger sprung into action. He started speaking publicly about his daughter and the toxic water, which made the issue visible and brought many other victims into Jerry's life. As a group, they took their investigation all the way to Capitol Hill for a Congressional hearing. But once there, Ensminger learned a hard lesson: The Marine Corps motto (which also serves as the film's title) might not mean as much to military leaders who need to protect their asses as it does to him.
The film shares a lot in common with its fellow Oscar shortlist member Battle for Brooklyn. Both films are about ordinary people thrust into situations they never dreamed they'd be in, fighting a losing battle for what's right. The main difference is the opponents both films' protagonists face. In Battle for Brooklyn, Daniel Goldstein faces a corporate behemoth with billions of dollars to throw around and a real grudge against this pesky New Yorker. With such slimy characters doing immoral (if not illegal) things, it's easy to feel a sense of disgust as Daniel's plight gets worse. In Semper Fi, however, the opponent is the military. No one, regardless of your political affiliation, wants to believe the military capable of such cowardice. One almost assumes those in charge of such a prestigious and honor-driven institution would practice what they preach—that they'd follow the code through even the most damning of situations, like this one. Instead, what Jerry and company get are excuses—"Well, we'll try to contact as many of the potentially-affected veterans as we can, but it might be hard." It's all just extremely disheartening.
But directors Tony Hardmon and Rachel Libert go a step further in their examination of this crisis: They make things quite personal. Ensminger, for example, becomes the face of the people involved in the case. In one scene, we sit down with him and his two living daughters, and they recall what it was like after Janey died. One of them goes so far as to say it felt like they lost a sister and a father, because he was so consumed with figuring out what happened and why. Another one of the affected men is Michael Partain, who was born at Camp Lejeune and was diagnosed with male breast cancer decades later. He becomes a very close and vocal ally of Ensminger's, and after working on outreach in his office for hours, he's forced to face the wrath of four disappointed children and a frustrated wife. They understand the importance of what he's doing, but he, it seems, isn't quite aware of the toll it's taking on them. Details like this elevate the film above your average underdog story.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful is pretty powerful stuff. It shares an underreported story with us, and it does so in as intimate a way as possible. The film is very tight and clean—very little feels extraneous. I think the only reason it missed out on a nomination is that its profile was lower than that of the five nominees. But the film is available on VOD now, and is definitely worth checking out.