With an accountant’s methodical attention and a true-crime maven’s taste for a great story, Kieran Fitzgerald’s memorable “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez” documents a tragic 1997 border incident that sheds light on the uses of U.S. military on home soil. Audiences who see this engrossing report will wonder why such an important event has been allowed to drift into obscurity, to say nothing of developing a general anger that justice hasn’t been served. A slam-dunk title for a cabler in the HBO-Showtime-Sundance vein, the pic could also score theatrical interest and plentiful fest offers.
On May 20, 1997, 18-year-old high schooler Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was killed by Clemente Banuelos, heading a four-man Marine patrol assigned to survey drug traffic on the border near tiny Redford, Texas. Supported by Tommy Lee Jones’ unobtrusive narration, the pic explains the anti-drug policy of beefed-up militarization of the border instituted by President George H.W. Bush and continued by Bill Clinton. (Notably, the Clinton Administration is seldom mentioned here, even though the incident occurred on Clinton’s watch.)
The agricultural Redford area is located in Presidio county, one of Texas’ poorest, and local historian Enrique Madrid notes that the Rio Grande river had been used for generations as a casual crossing point of exchange between farming communities on both sides of the shore. Enrique was a good student, whose immediate goal was to build up the family goat business. Latter was to prove his undoing.
Fitzgerald’s journalistic breakthrough is in being the first to conduct in-depth interviews with three of the four patrolling Marines — Roy Torrez Jr., James Blood and Ronald Wieler — although the conspicuous absence of Banuelos from the film, even including his current whereabouts, is never explained. The accounts of the three Marines, along with video of the subsequent Marine investigation and enlightening commentary by highly critical FBI investigator Terry Kincaid, ratchets up pic’s suspenseful midsection.
After waiting hours to spot any suspicious activity, Banuelos’ heavily camouflaged patrol was ready to return to base when it came upon a figure apparently herding goats; this was Hernandez, who fired back at what he possibly sensed was a predator. Responding to their combat training, the Marines read Hernandez as a hostile, with Banuelos tracking the teen until he had a clear shot.
Kincaid explains that Hernandez was shot nearly in the back, debunking the Marines’ and Banuelos’ claim that he killed Hernandez in self-defense; pic clearly states this was a case of a targeted killing, the first against a U.S. citizen on native soil by military since the Kent State killings in 1971.
Fitzgerald does tend to gild the lily in the final section, when he draws strained connections between Bush, Madrid’s educator mother and young Hernandez; the doc’s omission of Clinton’s support of border militarization — arguably the cause of the tragedy — gives it the feeling of being unfairly politically slanted.
Wide range of interviewed witnesses, legal and investigative experts is impressive, as is the depth of the pic’s human portraits. At the same time, due to Fitzgerald’s beautiful lensing and steady hand in the editing room (with Shane Slattery-Quintanilla and Brendan Fitzgerald), the final work goes far beyond being an assembly of talking heads. Perhaps rightly, no mention is made of Jones’ fine film, “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” which loosely adapted parts of the border tragedy.