by Maribeth Thueson, NRFTW Contributor

It’s 2008, and the U.S. military’s surge in Iraq is underway. Soldiers are being called up for their second and third deployments, but some are suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome from previous tours. The military says they’re fit to serve, but they can’t face going back. What can they do?

Some of them find attorney Mark Walker (Danny Glover), who operates out of a storefront called “The Drummer” near an upstate-New York army base. Often defensive and close-lipped at first, the soldiers open up when he tells them he’s a Vietnam veteran. He has more in common with them than they realize – he also suffers from PTSD, and still has nightmares and flashbacks.

The soldiers are vulnerable and on edge, and Walker tries to help them with their legal issues, but he’s more interested in getting them to do press conferences and join an upcoming anti-war march so he can generate publicity for the anti-war movement. He loses sight of their fragility and humanity, and the consequences are horrific.

The Drummer has some problems: the screenplay’s structure doesn’t always show cause and effect, the sets were obviously done on a shoestring budget (meetings that should take place in offices happen outside in parking lots), and the shaky hand-held camera gets to be annoying. But the strength of some of the performances outshines these negatives, and the situations and emotions of the soldiers feel real, no doubt because director and co-screenwriter (with Jessica Gohlke) Eric Werthman was a therapist for 25 years and used the experience of giving free therapy to returning veterans as fodder for the film.

The film concentrates on two soldiers, Darian Cooper and Cori Gibson. Cooper (Sam Underwood) has a wife and a baby, and is haunted by his last tour in Iraq, when he killed what he thought were enemies, only to find they were the parents of a young child. He’s about to be deployed for the third time, and considers going absent without leave to avoid going back to Iraq, even making a trip to Canada to consider the feasibility of finding refuge there. But it’s not the 60s anymore, and running to Canada isn’t as easy as it used to be. Underwood does a fine job of portraying Cooper’s desperation. He’s wound up tight and ready to explode, and when he does, the results are tragic.

Prema Cuz gives an outstanding performance as Cori Gibson, who has been AWOL for six months, hiding out in her grandmother’s house, staying in bed all day but not being able to sleep. The scene where she recounts how she was sexually assaulted by a staff sergeant and then betrayed by her commanding officer is heartbreaking. Walker wants her to turn herself in, but the plan goes awry and she ends up on the run and feeling betrayed all over again.

Glover’s Walker is weary of fighting the same battles on behalf of veterans over and over with a new generation. When he realizes that he is partially responsible for what happens to Cooper and Gibson, his sorrow and self-recrimination are palpable.

News stories about vets with PTSD and the epidemic of sexual assault in the military often seem abstract, and few Americans outside of military circles know someone who is dealing with these issues. The value in a film like The Drummer is that by concentrating on two individuals, we get a better understanding of the toll that their service and the military’s failure to care for them takes on them and their families, and we can extrapolate that to others. The film may not be perfect, but it still packs a powerful punch. 

The Drummer, which debuted at the Woodstock Film Festival last year, will be available on demand on November 9th.

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