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Movie Review: 'On Sacred Ground' Vets and Native Americans Vs Oil Company Profits

New drama, On Sacred Ground, stands in the political divide over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

By Sean PatrickPublished about a year ago 4 min read

On Sacred Ground (2023)

Directed by Josh Trickell, Rebecca Harrell Trickell

Written by Josh Trickell, Rebecca Harrell Trickell, William Mapother

Starring William Mapother, Amy Smart, Frances Fisher

Release Date January 13th, 2023

Published January 13th

On Sacred Ground tells a very unique story from a very specific perspective. Long time character actor William Mapother stars in On Sacred Ground as a reporter with a very specific right wing perspective. He's long been suspicious of environmental terrorists and his reporting on that subject catches the eye of a right wing news outlet. This right wing news outlet, working in league with oil company lobbyists, seeks to hire Mapother's Daniel McKinney to cover the story of Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil company pipeline being built over land owned by Native Americans.

The story that news organization and the oil company are pushing is that the Native American activists are violent, eco-terrorists who are disrupting a safe and legal oil pipeline and causing the kind of environmental crisis that they claim to be protesting against. The propaganda has Daniel on the side of the oil company, a perspective furthered when he arrives at the site of the pipeline protest where he witnesses a particularly emotional and physical protest in progress.

Irene Bedard and William Mapother

Access to the site is controlled by an oil company representative, and fellow former veteran named Elliott (David Arquette). Elliott claims that the violence of the protests is not coming from the army of mercenaries hired as security by the oil company or the lines of Police Officers also on the side of the oil company. No, according to Elliott the supposedly non-violent, mostly Native American protesters are the ones throwing rocks, threatening Police and Security and doing damage to oil company property.

What Elliott and Daniel's new newspaper boss, Ricky (Frances Fisher), did not expect was for Daniel to embed himself with the protesters. Thinking he can uncover the violence among the protesters, Daniel goes to their camp and finds himself drafted in as a volunteer in a very well organized and trained group of protesters. The protesters bring Daniel in, show him their training in non-violent protest, and place him on the front line of that non-violent protest where he witnesses what has really been happening. When he finds himself injured in the protest, the care and empathy he receives from the Native American protesters is life altering, mirroring the experiences real veterans protesting at Standing Rock have reported.

Amy Smart and William Mapother

The story of On Sacred Ground is based on the story of a group of military veterans who joined the ranks of Native American protesters at Standing Rock in North Dakota. This group of veterans were brought together by a fellow veteran, Wesley Clark Jr., son of General Wesley Clark, a former Democrat Presidential candidate. He went to Standing Rock at the behest of a friend and found Native American protesters being brutalized by what he called a private army employed by the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Clark Jr. began calling for veterans to join him at Standing Rock in order to act as a human shield to protect protesters known as Water Protectors. Indeed, the first protests attended by Clark Jr and fellow veterans led to a completely peaceful protest. Since then, the protests have continued each time work has started over at the Dakota Access Pipeline. On Sacred Ground doesn't address Clark Jr. or the real life veteran protests but uses them as the backbone of a story about a man who chooses to tell the truth despite his biases.

William Mapother has been a character actor for years in Hollywood, known for his minor characters on shows like Lost, Mad Men, and The Mentalist. Mapother invests Daniel with a haunted quality that suits a character also suffering from war related PTSD. Mapother does well to give Daniel a feckless quality early in the film that fits with a man willing to work for a media outlet with a clear agenda. Later, as he begins to bond with the Native Americans at Standing Rock, Mapother's subtly starts to bring light into the character's eyes that matches a renewed sense of connection and purpose. It's a really solid performance from a veteran character actor with one of those incredibly recognizable faces.

Whether or not you like On Sacred Ground may come down on whether you are liberal or conservative. If you are a liberal, the film will be more appealing, if somewhat pandering. If you are a conservative you likely won't even give the movie a chance to appeal to you. For those somewhere in the middle, your mileage may vary as to how much you prefer a liberal or conservative perspective. If you are sympathetic to environmental causes and Native American issues, you will find something in On Sacred Ground, if not, you will probably be annoyed and turn it off. The film is solid in terms of technical and storytelling aspects but it isn't quite strong enough to hold up under the weight of what you bring to it politically.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my work here on Vocal. If you'd really like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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