The problem with political rants is they get pretty tiresome pretty fast. Which is why Showtime’s new movie about the murder of Army Private Barry Winchell tries so desperately to avoid one.
It only partly succeeds. While it’s true Soldier’s Girl does an admirable job depicting the final weeks that led up to the horrific, gay-bashing murder of Winchell, bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat at the Fort Campbell army base in July 1999, the film falters when it feels the need to tell viewers why they should care — as if watching Winchell’s head get bashed in with a Louisville Slugger weren’t proof enough that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” U.S. military policy is seriously flawed.
Screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) seems most comfortable telling the story itself — how Winchell, a naÃ¯ve and earnest young man, comes to fall in love with a transgendered nightclub performer and how rumors about that love affair ultimately cost him his life. But, for some reason, Nyswaner also lets political commentary spill into the script, resulting in dialogue so forced and hollow, it’s as though the characters were reading from a press release.
Thankfully, that doesn’t happen too often, and Nyswaner sticks to the story’s basics, which present a fairly compelling narrative.
Soldier’s Girl opens as Winchell (Troy Garity, son of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda) arrives at the Kentucky army base for an assignment with the Airborne Infantry division known as the “Screaming Eagles.” He’s immediately confronted by his hard-drinking, taunting roommate, Justin Fisher (Shawn Hatosy), an intense and emotionally-unstable soldier, who’s out to lord over the suggestible Winchell.
It isn’t long before Fisher is “testing” his roommate by taking him to a Nashville gay club to see if he’s aroused by the drag shows. As luck would have it, Winchell does indeed fall for the exotic Calpernia Addams (Lee Pace), a pre-operative transsexual. The ensuing love affair is sweet and tender even if it does rely on a string of predictable cliches. You can’t help but groan when Winchell — with all his boyish charm — playfully splashes beer on Calpernia, who squeals in mock horror. Or when the two lovers drift along a sun-dappled stream in a rowboat powered by Winchell’s manly arms.
It’s only when the lovers navigate the murky waters of sexuality (Are you a boy or girl? Straight or gay? Does it matter?) that the relationship seems to ring true. Only in this confusion does the relationship find its actual voice: full of contradictions but painfully self-aware.
Of course, Winchell had no idea what was in store for him. When rumors about the love affair are spread at the barracks, he’s mocked and scorned as the resident faggot. The gossips spawns an investigation by Fort Campbell commanders, and when Winchell, a Soldier of the Month nominee, is asked if he’s gay, he wisely denies it. But the investigation leaves him shaken, questioning his commitment to Calpernia.
The most riveting portion of Soldier’s Girl comes near the end, when the half-mad Fisher convinces Private Calvin Glover (Philip Eddolls), a scrawny 17-year-old known for pathological lying, to take a bat to the sleeping Winchell with a force so extreme, pieces of brain are expelled through his left ear.
In a strange way, this is where the movie really begins to soar. When Soldier’s Girl grapples with the absolute horror of the murder, the elements of the film truly come together. It’s as if the script, the acting and everything else become entirely obsessed with the truth of what happened that haunting night. Without commentary, without preaching, the facts speak for themselves: a soldier was murdered because he was gay.