A typically copper-bottomed performance by Danny Glover isn’t just the making of The Drummer, it sets the tone for the entire film.
He’s been doing this sort of thing for ever – long before Lethal Weapon more or less institutionalised his shtick – and here plays the Vietnam veteran who runs a drop-in centre called The Drummer, which caters for serving military personnel who want out.
It’s 2007 and George W Bush has just ordered “the surge” in Iraq, and in an all-hands-on-deck move the army is sending back into the field of conflict people who really shouldn’t be there, either because they’re exhausted and have done too many tours already, or because they’re suffering psychological problems like PTSD.
Putting a human face on the politics of it all are Darien (Sam Underwood) and Cori (Prema Cruz), the former a burnt-out family man quailing at the prospect of being sent back, the latter having gone AWoL after being traumatised and sexually abused while in post.
Both turn to Mark Walker (Glover), a lawyer specialising in cases like these, and who knows whereof he speaks – he’s still haunted by what he saw and did in Vietnam more than 50 years before.
Walker isn’t an ambulance chaser, he’s a committed idealist who’s been an activist all his life, and sees his mission to represent individuals as part of the bigger anti-war movement he’s trying to build – a surge of his own. But “it’s 2008 not 1968” he explains to a journalist who’d been hoping that the march Walker has organised would have attracted more than 500 protesters.
Running on a slight parallel track is an interrogation of activism per se. At one point Walker is asked why, after all these years, he’s still out there campaigaining, trying to muster support for lost causes, and he’s not sure how to reply, apart from to say that his “resistance” is all he’s got left.
There’s an attractive stillness to Glover’s performance as a dignified but troubled man who keep his problems well hidden. And The Drummer seems to take its cues from him. Director Eric Werthman and co-writer Jessica Gohlke could have leaned in hard on the trauma – there’s much dramatic meat in the situation of Walker, Darien and Cori – but instead they make this a psychological study of effects rather than causes.
So battle junkies, war nuts and fans of melodramatic flameouts will probably be disappointed by what’s on offer. Fans of acting less so. Glover is dependable, sympatico as you’d expect, but he also conjures up a frail mental hinterland for Mark Walker. Underwood looks every inch the GI and is convincing as a man pushed to the limit, as is Prema Cruz as Cori, with the most harrowing scenes in the film resting on her shoulders.
The army does not really get a fair shout. The grunts all seem like decent people who have largely signed up for altruistic reasons, but the officer class is a different matter, being almost entirely composed of bullies or the weaklings hiding behind them. Fair enough, you might say, this is a campaigning movie and propaganda is as propaganda does.
At no point in The Drummer does Mr Walker, a lawyer, ever appear to hand out any legal advice. There are no courtroom showdowns, no masterly wins grabbed from the jaws of defeat. This is obviously deliberate. But there’s also a slight disconnect with the real world all the way through. Some of that is down to the fact that the action in The Drummer is meant to be taking place in an army town, unfamiliar to most of us. Some of it is down to the fact that The Drummer, for good and ill, is reaching for pressure-cooker mental dynamics which its laidback style of delivery struggles to supply.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021