There’s an unflinching aspect of writer/director Quinn Else’s short film, Fort Irwin, which makes it a film audience may be unprepared for. Working across multiple levels, Fort Irwin is first a story about a veteran still dealing with his trauma before revealing that it’s just as much about how the military and general civilians view soldiers, especially those who return injured. A deeply personal story with reverberating notions, it surprises by being both uplifting and heartbreaking in equal measure. Lead by real-life veteran and double-amputee Army Sgt. Cristian Valle, Fort Irwin follows a fictionalized Cristian who has agreed to take part in a military simulation to be recorded for training purposes.
The first thing audiences will notice is Else’s direction and how what we see is as important as what is said. In the opening sequence, under the cover of darkness, Cristian gets himself ready for his day. In a poorly lit room, the camera focuses on a knee as two hands slide a black covering over top. Then, the camera slides over as a red fabric is pulled over top of that. Just before the audience can figure out what’s happening, the camera pulls back, revealing Cristian in profile. The camera holds on his steps for preparation, using the tightening of one prosthetic as the transition to a new location where Cristian unscrews his gas cap to refuel his truck. This is a small sequence, but the consequences are enormous. With nary a line of dialogue, Else conveys the personal nature of the story, putting what some might see as uncomfortable right in front. This is Cristian’s life. It’s neither inspirational nor aspirational, as films are wont to evoke when it comes to featuring a narrative with a disability. Rather, it just is. What separates Fort Irwin from other films is all in the depiction. The majority of this is due, again, to Else’s direction and structure of the narrative. The other aspect is Valle’s performance. In only his second film, Valle conveys a natural quality, making each scene radiate in truth. Considering the lack of dialogue from Valle, it would be easy to suggest that the character of Cristian is merely a reflective tool for the story, an empty cipher for a larger theme, and that Cristian merely reacts to what’s around him. Instead, Valle’s performance conveys the daily struggle of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), that it’s not just the training session which pulls him back to the warzone that created the injuries, but normal events in everyday life which serve as triggers. These are only two-parts of the first layer of the film. The second layer is far more incisive and cutting.
On location at Fort Irwin for the training, Else unveils some truly compelling subtext. As Cristian goes through make-up to remove his prosthetics and be fitted with a variety of applications, representatives of the military move around him. For Cristian, this is a return to the moment of trauma, whereas to the people at the training, this is just another day. Make-up artists casually talk as they apply a series of macabre applications to “victims” like Cristian. The person in charge leads tourists through the camp so they can see just how “real” the simulation is before it begins. A slightly overweight man in a “I Don’t Call 911” tee featuring a large gun takes a photo of Cristian resting against a wall. This moment appears to be emblematic of Else’s larger point regarding how civilians view the military and how those who return are merely props for service. Where Weekend Warriors can proclaim strength as they pretend to hunt and kill their fellow man for fun, while soldiers like Cristian are in a battle for their lives every moment when stationed in combat zones. In a film with several unsettling moments, this sequence stands out the most as it highlights just how poorly the average citizen views those who serve.
Clocking in just over 11-minutes, Quinn Else’s Fort Irwin does more to convey social responsibility and personal health than most features. Valle’s performance certainly helps as it anchors the film, not just because everything revolves around Cristian, but in how he reacts to his situation. Some of this is presented to the audience as a shift in perspective, wherein the audience is shown a sequence, in all its Michael Bay-esque slo-mo glory, as Cristian is beset by gunfire and explosions, only to have the camera pull back and show the audience the simulation at work (ergo: less cinematic). These shifts in perspective not only enable the audience to get into the mindset of Cristian more easily, upping the intensity incredibly, but also assist in mooring reality. Fort Irwin isn’t a film where reality bends and Cristian is miraculously healed, but it does beautifully communicate the truth of wounded soldiers like Cristian: the battlefield often comes home with them. To be clear, Fort Irwin is not without hope. As much as there appears to be a condemnation of the view of wounded soldiers, there’s also a message of quiet resilience, that the inclination to serve runs deep, and that the chance to help save even one life, even at the risk of one’s own psychological health, is a chance worth taking.
Fort Irwin screened during the 2019 Fantastic Fest Festival. For more information on the film or writer/director Quinn Else’s work, head to the Else’s official website. To learn more about Sgt. Cristian Valle’s background, head to Homes for Our Troops.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.