Although Showtime is billing it as a documentary, Semper Fi: One Marine’s Journey is essentially a nonfiction performance, a valuable and insightful document from gay ex-Marine Jeff Key about his journey from a Bible-quoting boyhood in Alabama to the all-sexualities embrace of Los Angeles to the shifting military and political sands of our venture in Iraq. The film smoothly combines a filmed recording of his own one-man play, Eyes of Babylon (which ran locally at the Tamarind in 2005), interviews with Key, family members, fellow Marines and friends, and finally video footage he took while on duty during the war. It’s not often someone gets to come out twice in life — once as gay, then at 34 as a Marine recruit — but what was clearly hardest for this die-hard patriot to admit was how disillusioned his tour in Iraq made him.
A gifted storyteller with Everyman good looks of the Tom Hanks/Peyton Manning variety, Key knows how to punch a scene he’s recounting with bursts of self-aware emotion. He effortlessly brings to life the early joy of connecting with sweet-faced, explosively happy Arab children, a secretly thrilling doublespeak encounter with a gay Iraqi man, and a post–Mission Accomplished creeping dread as occupiers and the occupied turn a sunbaked climate into a lasting chill.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” comes in for an eloquent beatdown, obviously: After a medical condition sent him home, Key voluntarily “told,” left the service, and became an anti-war voice on the news networks. But in this context, that ridiculous policy has come to feel tied as well to the ability of fighting men and women to get the truth out about their experiences, whether it’s about blogs from the front or proper medical care at home. Key’s is only one story of many. Let’s hope we hear more.