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Tribeca 2011: “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Reviewed

Tribeca 2011: “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Reviewed (photo)

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The phrase “The American Dream” calls to mind certain images. When I hear those words, I visualize small but comfortable suburban houses in bucolic surroundings. Yards, fences, kids playing in the street. Basically, I imagine what Camp Lejeune looked like in the middle of the last century. Lejeune is the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast. In archival footage from “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” Lejeune looks the way we want America to look. But that simple beauty hid a horrifying secret: Lejeune’s water was tainted with industrial chemicals. For thirty years. And the military knew about it. Instead of trying to correct it, they covered it up.

“Semper Fi: Always Faithful” is a documentary about the one man who almost single-handedly exposed one of the largest incidents of water contamination in our nation’s history. His name is Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger. He lived at Camp Lejeune during the contamination, and one of his daughters died of leukemia at the age of nine. Despondent over her death, he vowed to find its cause. His search eventually turned up evidence of toxins leaking into the drinking water at Lejeune and, much later, of efforts to keep this information secret. But even after he discovered the truth, and found that his daughter’s cancer was merely the tip of an iceberg of disease and tragedy, he would still need to spend years to bring that information to the government’s and the public’s attention.

If a private company had polluted and poisoned as many people as the Marine Corps did at Lejeune they likely would have been sued out of business. Ensminger can’t even get the Marine Corps to warn the families that lived at Lejeune during the contamination. In one hearing, their representative has the temerity to claim they don’t know who exactly lived at Lejeune during that period. When a Senator rightfully calls bullshit on that, their response, and I’m paraphrasing here, is “Well, yes, we could do it. But it would be extremely difficult.” I haven’t served in the military, but I’ve seen a lot of movies about it. Doesn’t the Marine Corps pride itself on its ability to accomplish extremely difficult tasks?

In fact, the only guy who’s really living up to the values of the Marines in “Semper Fi” is Ensminger himself. Ironically, the very values the Corps taught him — to continue a fight until you win it or you die in the process — are the same values that fuel his quest to disprove the Marine Corps’ lies.

Directors Rachel Libert and Tony Hardmon follow Ensminger as his efforts to expose the truth finally begin to pick up steam. The film assumes the structure of an investigation. Ensminger and his allies interview victims and epidemiologists, compile data, deliver testimony at Congressional hearings, and uncover shocking deception in a sort of “All the Commander-in-Chief’s Men.” It is true that “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” is a visually and structurally pedestrian documentary (and since semper fi translates to always faithful, it has one hell of a redundant title). But there are elements of Libert and Hardmon’s film that are superb. Note how many scenes open with establishing shots that include images of water, that most important of substances and the subject upon which the entire film rests. A lawn sprinkler has never looked quite so sinister as in this movie.

Libert and Hardmon’s film is far-reaching and comprehensive, though it would have been nice if they could have convinced someone from the Marine Corps to sit down for an interview. The topics of government corruption and military malfeasance can be just as unpopular with film investors as they are for Ensminger in Congress. It couldn’t have been easy to make this movie. Neither is it easy to convince battle hardened soldiers to let down their guard in front of a movie camera. It is not often you see Marines openly weep. It makes an impact. These men fought for our right to pursue our own American Dreams. And as thanks, they had theirs ripped away from them.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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