(L-R) Santiago Sandoval, David Zonana, Fernando Cuautle, and Eréndira Núñez Larios attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Heroic” Premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)
By Stephanie Ornelas
Military institutions have been at the center of controversy for ages. Is their purpose to further the endeavors of balancing humanity for good, or do they exacerbate the cruel intentions of the inhumane — purposely, or inadvertently? Regardless of which armed forces you consider at any point in history, you will always find conflicts in their goals and the means by which they accomplish them. However, the largest bit of damage that is often overlooked is that of the psychological approach to the training and consideration (or lack thereof) for the well-being of the potential soldiers of any military. Whether or not they enlist and begin preparing for a physical war, short or long term, many don’t anticipate or know how to prepare for a lifelong battle they’ll endure from a barrage of torment by the same institution that is supposed to protect their country and its people.
With Heroic, director David Zonana dissects a burning issue of concern and attacks it visually and sonically, sometimes discombobulating what we believe we are seeing and should be feeling about military institutions that we’ve been led to believe exist for our good and the good of those with whom they interact.
At the base of Zonana’s drama-thriller lies the deeper issue of why so many in Mexico decide to join the military in order to wear one of the country’s most respected uniforms. Or perhaps, is it one of the most feared? In the case of Luis (played by Santiago Sandoval Carbajal), who joins the Heroic Military Academy, he does so in hopes of being able to provide healthcare for his diabetic mother through military insurance, along with having the financial ability to support his girlfriend. It should come as no surprise that many of Luis’ first-year cohorts, or “colts,” join the academy out of necessity to provide for their families, with few aware of what sacrifices are truly required to one day don that badge.
“Living in Mexico nowadays, we see it all the time on the news — there are a lot of controversies around the military subject,” says Zonana during the post-premiere Q&A in Park City. “I wanted to go a little deeper in my approach because what we see in the news is violence: shootings and human rights abuse. I wanted to humanize the young people who get involved in the military by starting with why they do it. What are their necessities, their needs, their social and economical situations?”
Carbajal explains how his time in the air force really helped him execute this role and prepare for its intense scenes.
“Interpreting Luis, it was interesting because I lived what he was going through. I went through everything. I suffered the same things. I was going through a depressive time going into the army. And I was able to portray that in the interpretation of the character.”
In a truly unique homage to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, we’re introduced to the always-grinning psychopath, Sergeant Eugenio Sierra. While the hazing, humiliation, and verbal and physical abuse commence against the colts, Luis is slightly spared from the physical pain his cohorts endure. He’s forced to watch and is treated to a more venomous and regular dose of psychological torment, causing him to further question everything around him in his journey to find his identity. He arrives as an 18-year-old of Indigenous descent in poverty, abandoned by his father, who was previously a military man himself. But Luis’ father left him with one tangible skill: He taught him how to shoot. This makes Luis an exceptional marksman among all cadets as he catches the eye and favor of Sergeant Sierra.
Sierra takes a liking to Luis, and brings him along for a weekend “errand” that feels a lot like armed robbery, perhaps more. So begin the further questions Luis never expected to examine. The seed of his desire to leave the institution is planted and never stops growing. Hazing rituals strikingly similar to those of college fraternities quickly snowball into brutal and hedonistic beatings, the questionable disappearance of a student, and a horrifying decision for Luis to proceed with a traumatic initiation.
Luis experiences a different level of exposure to the truth of the Academy, its higher-level constituents and leaders, and the military institutions of Mexico — corruption and evil seeping through all levels. So many others like him joined the military simply to put food on the table. They see no virtue in joining the military. Marginalized and impoverished communities, even in a developing country, are forced into joining the military as a means to keep their loved ones alive, who slowly fall victim to an unknown danger. Luis arrives at the Academy with doubts in his mind of his identity, his roots, his family, his direction. But by Heroic’s shocking end (or is it the end?), we see and feel his and so many others’ mental and physical angst manifest in the most horrifying of ways. It begs the question — does Luis do the right thing, or does he know what the right thing even is anymore?