Sundance 2023 Review: A Sharpshooter Questions His Aim in David Zonana’s Absorbing “Heroic”

In a competition to slide across the floor of the showers at the Military Academy of Mexico in “Heroic,” Luis Nunez Rosales (Santiago Sandoval Carbajal) would seem to go the farthest. This isn’t a fun activity, at least not for him or any of his fellow recruits, but rather the sergeants who rank just above them and are only one generation removed from the year of hazing that accompanies the cadets’ formal education, now soaping up the newbies and thrusting them across the room as presumably they once were. It seems somewhat by chance that Luis exceeds his fellow recruits in this exercise, though not an anomaly – the son of veteran with expert aim, he has a leg up on the others around him and becomes a favorite of the sergeants, particularly Eugenio Sierra (Fernando Cuautle), the leader of the Second Infantry Company, who promises everyone under his command that his unit is “the hardest because I’m in charge.”

You can’t decide whether Luis is in a privileged position or not throughout “Heroic” as a favorite of the sergeants, not subject to their worst torturous tactics when they consider him one of their own with his skillset but anguished nonetheless by what he sees, but in writer/director David Zonana’s searing drama, the tragedy is the corruption can’t be stopped, only managed and after it takes hold of a society, it comes for the soul. His second feature is a confirmation of the prodigious talents he exhibited in his criminally underseen debut “Workforce,” in which a construction worker gradually took up residence in the house he was hired to refurbish, at the mercy of an owner who is far less in need of the property than he is for living quarters, and in a world of haves and have nots, the military isn’t seen as a calling in “Heroic,” but a last resort when it is one of the few ways to obtain family health insurance, particularly for indigenous communities.

Luis would rather not speak his native Náhuatl on the premises, likely not wanting to be reminded of where he came from as much as letting others on to it, but he has no reason to be ashamed when many will speak it in the rare moments they show their personal side at the academy. Statues of Aztec Gods line the magnificent campus which seems to be chiseled from stone at the top of a mountain, a lineage Luis should take pride in being a part of, but only feels to him like window dressing when he is usually reflected as an ant inside it, a shrewd observation of pageantry and tradition that Zonana extends to the military band, whose pitch-perfect rendition of “Reveille” in the morning will occasionally overlap with the screams from the barracks of the night before as the sergeants brutalize the cadets.

In another striking collaboration with cinematographer Carolina Costa, Zonana would seem to observe Luis with clinical detachment when “Heroic” unfolds relentlessly in stationary frames as orderly as the military would like its soldiers to behave, only the stillness makes any challenges posed by the soldiers’ human tendencies all the more pronounced. It becomes clear that any ascension in the ranks is not a mark of excellence but endurance, which may not on paper sound any different than “Full Metal Jacket” or any other military-based story in its wake where combat is exposed to be far less of a threat than basic training, yet “Heroic” takes on far greater dimension when Zonana envisions a vicious cycle starting from what the young have had to withstand before enlisting, taking on responsibilities held up as an honor culturally that appear more like a trap once in service, with more degradation accepted with each passing generation when the previous one can’t imagine it being any better.

It’s telling that the irredeemably reprobate Sergeant Sierra is not some hardened, overly macho disciplinarian, but a smirking smooth talker so confident in his authority he need not ever raise his voice in spite of his relatively low position on the totem pole, with most so defeated by the powerful already that anyone holding some isn’t questioned. To counter a system so seemingly indomitable, Zonana is able to expose the cracks where conscience kicks in amongst the cadets to wonder about their surroundings or why exactly that they’re there as well as deliver moments of such overwhelming clarity that the realization sets in that we’re all engaged in a war right now against apathy and “Heroic” can’t help but make you feel something.

“Heroic” will screen again at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21st at 12:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City, January 23rd at 9:30 pm at the Redstone Cinemas 1 in Park City, January 26th at 6:35 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas 2 in Park City, and January 27th at 8:30 am at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City. It will be available virtually from January 24th through January 29th.