There are two films in I Want to Be a Soldier – appropriate, given that its central character is a ten-year old boy named Alex (Fergus Riordan, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) who has two imaginary friends. Both are played by Ben Temple, in an electric performance, a full-sized version of the devil and angel that sit on the proverbial shoulder. In some ways, the film is excellent: it moves at a breakneck speed, narrated in a stream-of-conscious style by Alex, camera angles all akimbo and a spectacular sense of tension. In other ways, the film is simply awful: a preachy screed about the connection between television and violent behavior, its characters often behave in unrealistic ways and it’s capped with an ending that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever (think The Sixth Sense but dumber).
I prefer to think about the things that did work. We are introduced to Alex and his parents as a loving family, and unless you have watched the trailers you may be initially confused by Captain Harry sitting off in the background, staring at them. It slowly becomes clear that Harry is not real, a figment of Alex’s imagination which helps him strive to be the best he can be. Alex’s parents are preparing for twins that they are expecting, straining their relationship with their son and causing them to lash out at him on occasion. Harry stands by Alex’s side, soothing him and letting him know that his parents love him but are just distracted by the impending childbirth. Alex and Harry talk under the sheets together about the fantastic life of an astronaut, of which Harry is one, and how one must shy away from cigarettes in order to make it to NASA.
But it is not long before Alex gets hooked on television, begging his parents to put a t.v. in his bedroom. Feeling that this will stifle his sense of exclusion from the family, his parents agree to his demands and Alex immediately begins witnessing all of the death and suffering in the world, piped through the heavens and into his room. We’ve got to suspend our disbelief a little bit here, just accept that a ten-year old would choose to watch war footage and grisly news programs when allowed a television in his room, rather than MTV and Cartoon Network. It’s a transformative moment, though, as the images on the screen scroll across Alex’s eager eyes and over the walls. The music rises, growing louder, the sound of gunfire and screaming overtaking the boy’s mother knocking at the door. In the corner, the camera pans up Captain Harry’s white pants onto a dark green jacket, the outfit of Colonel John Cluster. Capt. Harry is no more, there is only Col. Cluster – and I mean that literally, as we see Harry’s corpse crumpled up in the closet. Alex doesn’t want to be an astronaut any longer, he wants to be a soldier.
His ideas about what a soldier is, though, are perverse. His ideals equate to simple terrorism, though he pays lip service to helping his family out. And Cluster is there through and through, to provide barked orders of violence at the boy. Where Harry encouraged Alex to eat his peas, Cluster says that the two of them will destroy any land which makes food that Alex doesn’t like. “Bomb brussels sprouts!” Cluster growls. Okay, yes, the sharp divergence between the two characters that Temple plays can be read as lazy, but he brings such an intensity to the character that it’s hard to be put off by it. There’s an incredible scene where Alex and his mother walk down the street, Cluster whispering epithets about the other people on the street into the boy’s ear. “Don’t trust the blind,” Cluster warns, out of fear that they’re disguised Viet Cong. He gets up in people’s faces and snarls curses at them, which they ignore of course because only Alex can see him. Cluster cries for the boy to spill blood: “Paint this town red!”
Meanwhile, the rest of the movie is framed by Alex writing a paper for school on the reasons that he wants to be a soldier, and it becomes an epic monologue of phrases and thoughts about how cool it would be to be a child soldier and not have to go to school, about how much he hates the twins, about how easy it would be to get an appendage torn off in a war because of the way that the girls would love to see him the conquering hero. At one point, his father bursts into the room and the narration stops suddenly while the two talk on-screen, the words picking up immediately again once his father leaves. And visually, the film cuts between news clips and various television footage to accentuate the degree to which the television has come to control Alex’s thoughts. It’s an asburd suggestion to say that violent images on television will necessarily turn your child into a fascist, but the extremes that Alex is pushed toward work here for the drama. The scenes he shares with his young siblings are nail-biters as it’s unclear what he is capable of. At one point, he gives the babies a switchblade and watches coldly as the two fight over the weapon, waiting for them to release the blade and slice themselves. It’s stuff like this that kept me on the edge of my seat, which made me want to love the film.
But I keep coming back to the heavy-handed moralism. Robert Englund (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and Danny Glover show up to add their voices to the typical “parents should watch their kids more”, “children shouldn’t watch television so much” slippery slope fear-mongering. And if that weren’t enough, the film takes some nails-on-a-chalkboard turns. Alex’s father hides some contrived secrets which do little to enhance the story. Alex is mistakenly blamed for errors and yells flatly, “There’s no point being good!” The parents ignore graphic brutality in drawings that their son makes in art class, are apparently not told that he consistently curses at those in authority. And oh god, that finale… it’s embarrassing.
But then there’s a moment when both Capt. Harry and Col. Cluster stand by Alex, shocked at the depths of his savagery. Even the usually sneering Cluster admonishes, “This isn’t a movie. You’re just a kid.” It’s in those moments, in the fierce dread and the kinetic filmmaking, that I Want to Be a Soldier shines. The movie does a lot wrong, I’ll admit, but it also does so much right.