Film Review: Semper Fi: Always Faithful

This heart-wrenching, activist documentary goes for the heart and the mind with its dramatic story of a crusading Marine Corps veteran fighting for victims of water pollution at Camp Lejeune.

“If I die tomorrow, my family gets nothing,” says Denita McCall, one of the former Marines profiled in Semper Fi, Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon’s inspiring documentary about the aftereffects of polluted water at the Corps’ largest base, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. But she also points out where she received her stubbornness from—the very Marine Corps that she is now attempting to get help from: “They trained me to be this way.”

According to this band of activist Marines, through negligence and later bureaucratic intransigence, the Corps that they staked so much of their lives on let untold thousands of Marines and their families drink water polluted with solvents and other harmful chemicals for decades. Their estimates suggest that up to a million people could have been exposed to poisonous carcinogens. Because the nature of the military spread those people far and wide, the alleged cancer clusters were that much more difficult to locate. But the cause has its gruff and charismatic leader, who doesn’t seem likely to let a petty thing like that stand in his way.

The filmmakers are unabashedly in awe of Master Sgt. (ret.) Jerry Ensminger, and most audience members will be, too. A bluff and rock-solid veteran of nearly a quarter-century spent training new Marine recruits, Ensminger lost his nine-year-old daughter to a little-seen kind of leukemia in the early 1980s. When the pollution at Camp Lejeune was first reported in 1997, his fight began.

Right alongside Ensminger, helping hold the Corps’ feet to the fire is Mike Partain, a youngish family man and former Marine who developed breast cancer. The extreme rarity of his disease made it seem particularly suspicious that so many soldiers and civilians from Camp Lejeune were afflicted by it. The combination of his experience as an insurance company claims adjuster, which provides the research background for their cause, and Ensminger’s operational savvy and cannily deployed bullheadedness makes for an imposing alliance of leaders at the head of this ad-hoc platoon of unlikely activists. When Ensminger says about the Corps motto (Semper Fidelis: Always Faithful), “If they didn’t want to live up to their motto, I would,” it’s the plainspoken words of a hero who would resolutely refuse to be called one.

But while the Marine Corps may have trained these men and women to never say die, the people at the top seem determined to wait them out. No matter how many news stories are published or broadcast or Washington hearings are held, the Corps seems to hold firm to a pattern of pure bureaucratic stonewalling and phony-sounding naiveté. At one point, a Corps spokesperson practically resorts to whining that the task of tracking down all the people potentially affected by the Camp Lejeune water would be extremely difficult; it’s one of the more sickening displays to be seen on film this or any other year.

As the activists push their case to higher and higher levels, the stakes grow exponentially. The reclassification of some chemicals in the polluted water as carcinogens could cost companies billions of dollars, bringing the Armani-suited lobbyists out in defensive droves. Meanwhile, given that the Pentagon, which owns some 130 highly polluted sites, is the nation’s single biggest polluter, the sprawling tragedy of Camp Lejeune seems to be perhaps just the beginning.

Somehow, with the plethora of dramatic subplots to spin off into, Libert and Hardmon keep their highly Oscar-worthy film short and focused. At a tight and emotionally draining 76 minutes, it has all the investigative punch of a window-rattling “Frontline” episode and the smoldering intensity of a high-stakes issues drama.