Too stagy and precious for its own good, “Semper Fi: One Marine’s Journey” is derived from Lance Corporal Jeff Key’s one-man show about his tour in Iraq and decision to come outas a gay man upon his return home — at the cost of his military career. Although filled with interesting moments, the mix of interviews and personal footage Key shot in Iraq with performance material culled from his journals creates an awkward blend, if a clarifying look at the Army’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and gays’ understandable hostility toward the system responsible for it.
An Alabama native, Key and his parents discuss his reluctance to embrace being a homosexual and his eventual move to California where he found a more accepting circle. Most interesting, however, is hearing the reaction from gay friends about Key’s decision to enlist in the Marines, with one wryly noting that the military’s rejection of gays represents “the one benefit” in a society where many openly discriminate against them.
Key, however, felt a strong desire to serve, and interviews with Marines in his unit find few objecting to being stationed alongside a gay man who, they recognize, would have willingly taken a bullet for them. Yet Key’s disenchantment with the prosecution of the Iraq war and the current administration’s muddled policy gradually sours him on the experience, to the point where — in full military regalia — he stiffly reads his letter to brass acknowledging his sexual orientation.
In some respects, director Vince DiPersio has cobbled together a conventional documentary, but the interviews and footage are punctuated by Key’s reenactment of scenes from his play, “The Eyes of Babylon,” shot against a stark black backdrop or projected images from Iraq. In that respect, it’s a bit like one of Spalding Gray’s monologues, though Key simply isn’t gifted enough to make the words come alive, and the oscillation from documentary to one-man performance often proves jarring.
Key’s John Wayne swagger and patriotic zeal neatly define the bind in which gay military personnel find themselves and go a long way toward undermining stereotypes — assuming those who harbor them would watch such an exercise. Given that his reflections become yet another indictment of the war, alas, that’s not terribly likely.
“Semper Fi” airs on Showtime following its premiere at the San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival.