Veteran’s Day is upon us once again, and with it I return to my ongoing journey of exploring the latest crop of war movies in the modern age. Although I become further removed from my service as the years go by, some experiences remain fresh in my mind. Truer still, lessons of the past become even more relevant with each new obstacle and challenge that befalls our society. There was much to be gleaned from this years selection, both in terms of explorations of socio-political issues and in terms of the profound psychological breakthroughs brought about through revisiting trauma. It is my hope that my words on these films will inform and provide some sense of insight, just as the films have done for me.
I. Future Imperfect
We begin with an overview of the archetypal War Film in the age of the high tech military industrial complex. 12 Strong is a fictionalized account of Task Force Dagger, members of the 5th Special Forces group who deployed deep into Afghanistan to initiate the first American strikes against the Taliban in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Using the nonfiction book The Horse Soldiers written by historian Dan Stanton as its source material, the screenplay actually hews pretty close to real events, as the harrowing story of TF Dagger is truly the stuff of legend. Knowing all this beforehand, It was unfortunate to realize, as I watched it, that I found 12 Strong rather boring.
For a cast stacked with so much talent, it was strange to see such normally dynamic actors completely sapped of charisma. Chris Hemsworth feels like a wet blanket version of his little brother; Michael Peña seems like he’s being forced to play “unlikable jerk” and you can almost see his active resistance to that directing choice on his face; Trevante Rhodes oozes natural movie star easy-going machismo, but he ends up being more iconically heroic in the B-movie schlock-fest The Predator than he does in the movie about actual iconic heroes. The combat scenes are overall well crafted, but set pieces paradoxically feel like pulled punches. Seeing soldiers whipping around on horseback with guns ablaze evokes imagery of the classic Hollywood Cowboy archetype, and the movie seems to recognize how cool this is, only to immediately reign itself in with plodding scenes of dialogue, as if it were ashamed of the gallantry and needed to stifle itself in order to be taken seriously.
At the core of all this is the fact that the movie wants to be deeply respectful yet also a high-octane adventure, and you simply can’t do both, especially while trying to traverse the moral complexities of US force relationships with local warlords. To its credit, the movie touches on these grey areas with scenes featuring the warlord General Dostum, played with layered nuance by Navid Negahban. Another fascinating performance comes via the shady CIA field operative “Brian” played by Taylor Sheridan. Arriving in country even earlier than the Special Forces, “Brian” in his few moments on screen accurately represents the moral and ethical murkiness of America’s unyielding force projection with his cocksure smile, weathered baseball cap, and giant rucksack full of cold hard cash used to bribe warlords as he travels from village to village in preparation for the oncoming war. At the end of the day, I longed for a feature length film about either the brave General or the mysterious CIA spook, unmoored from the action movie cardboard cutout heroes that Hollywood insists on projecting upon us.
More recently in theaters this year was the military action thriller Hunter Killer, starring Gerard Butler as a US Submarine commander sent to investigate an attack on American forces in Russian waters. What unfolds is an action-packed race against time as a Russian military leader bent on nuclear annihilation stages a coup. The film is in essence a lesser Tom Clancy-style airport novel adapted to screen, but I was honestly fine with that. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with bombastic military action if that is the stated goal, and overall I enjoyed how the film reveled in its action more than 12 Strong‘s pulled punches and half measures. The moments of sweaty angry men shouting at each other in cramped spaces while things explode work well enough for a submarine action yarn. That said, this too suffers in part because it seems to want to be taken seriously instead of immersing itself in the glorious foolishness of Leonidas On A Big Ass Boat.
The other half of Hunter Killer‘s action takes place on land with a crew of Navy SEALs, which thankfully has a firmer tongue in its cheek and self awareness of its role as a shootemup action yarn. And you’d absolutely have to be in this case: whereas the submarine action is a Hunt For Red October knock off, the Navy SEAL plot line is an almost a direct recreation of the plot in the video game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, in which a team of Delta Force operatives is sent to rescue the Russian president from a military takeover. Knowing that the film is in essence a Video Game Movie makes its silliness easy to swallow, but I had serious reservations about a military film that wants to present the idea of cooperation with the Russian president as an idea worth considering seriously. Hunter Killer is outdated in its themes and setting, and feels particularly blind to our current political landscape, presenting a hostile nation that has engaged in covert enemy activity as an honorable partner. Hunter Killer certainly isn’t trying to advocate a pro-Russia political position in between its explosions, but the fact that it seems to be completely unaware of these issues is, perhaps, a larger concern.
One of the more fascinating movie experiences I’ve had this year is the modern black ops action film Mile 22, with Mark Wahlberg reuniting with his longtime collaborator director Peter Berg. While their last 3 films together were all based on real life stories of tragedy and heroism, Berg returns to the fantastical with a story about a highly classified covert action team known as “Overwatch” operating in an unnamed Southeast Asian country, tasked with getting a local defector out of harm’s way. The defector in question is the Indonesian action superstar Iko Uwais, who made a name for himself in with the modern martial arts masterpiece The Raid and its deadly sequel The Raid 2.
The entire film feels askew from the first sequence, with an incredibly intense raid on a suburban home filled with Russian agents observed through shaky camera framing, prefaced by a deranged Marky Mark railing against “fake news” and Russian collusion. Wahlberg is perhaps the most aggressively unlikable character he’s ever been, completely crossing the line into full-fledged sociopath, implied by flashes of classified dossier notes in the opening credits and explicitly recognized by his subordinates. The notorious “birthday cake” scene will no doubt be the stuff of cinematic legend. Stranger still, Iko Uwais as Li is poised, professional, cunning, and charismatic: An Asian James Bond, the polar opposite of Wahlberg’s repellent Agent Silva. Yet when the action gets going, the frenetic camera betrays Uwais’ skill at every turn. The fight sequences contain some of the most insanely gory and acrobatic kills of the year; if only they could actually be seen clearly.
Mile 22 is unpleasant and scattershot through most of its run, but I was truly thrown for a loop during the finale reveal and began to sincerely question what exactly was unfolding before me.
*The following will contain spoilers*
It is revealed that Li is in fact a triple agent, his defection and escape all an elaborately orchestrated rouse designed to draw out the secretive Overwatch team. The Russians learn the location of the team’s mobile headquarters, commanded by a high level secret agent played by John Malkovich, setting them all up to be summarily executed in retribution for the opening Russian safe house raid, one of the victims of which is revealed to be the son of a powerful Russian diplomat.
In effect, the tacti-cool American Good Guys suffer a crushing, bloody, humiliating defeat. This surprising revelation provokes the question: Is this movie one giant subversion of modern American military propaganda? Was it bad on purpose? Further adding to this theory is the out of nowhere line “say hi to your mother for me”, spoken by Li to Silva and suggesting a deeper meta-textual layer of ridicule in reference to a Saturday Night Live skit/meme that Wahlberg is apparently not fond of.
*Spoilers end here.*
I have been a fan of Peter Berg for some time, and he seems to have a predilection for US military worship that is also tempered by some sense of awareness, however slight. At the end of the day, I can’t help but think that Berg has, in essence, tricked Marky Mark into making an excoriation of the modern macho military American hero which goes completely over the inflated head of the leading man. I remain open to arguments otherwise, but for now I am utterly fascinated by this off-putting abomination that may in time reveal itself to be a masterwork of satire.
OPERATION RED SEA
If this year’s American works of cinematic modern warfare has issues finding cohesion between its bombast and politics, leave it to the mighty People’s Republic of China to produce one of the greatest pieces of military agitprop to ever grace the silver screen, completely disregarding the separation between cinema and state. Operation Red Sea is one of the most well crafted and exhilarating war movies of the last decade. It is also unabashedly and unequivocally state funded propaganda, created as a celebration of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s 90th Anniversary.
The film is a sequel to the 2016 action film Operation Mekong, but seeing the first installment isn’t required to follow along with this latest adventure. The movie is a heavily embellished account of the Chinese naval operation in which over 200 foreign nationals and over 600 Chinese citizens were rescued from fierce fighting during the outbreak of the Yemeni Civil War in 2015. The operation was an unprecedented success of Chinese military force projection, announcing to the world that China’s massive military was indeed capable of dealing with highly sensitive crises on the complex modern geopolitical battlefiel –, something that for many decades had been the providence of western/European military superpowers. However, modern military propaganda isn’t complete without some gosh-darn explosions, so a highfalutin story line about terrorists with stolen nuclear material is thrown into the mix.
The truth is, its difficult as an outsider to express just how powerfully well the film works as propaganda. For that, I point you towards an essay on the film by our very own Mei Wong, a person of Chinese descent living in Australia, for whom the film’s spell of military nationalism was almost too strong to resist. I will only add that whatever happens in the future of cinema, we simply cannot ignore the impact that China has; not just through its bankrolling of American blockbusters or its multinational distribution, but on the very sophisticated messaging woven into its films. Avert not thine eyes.
II. We Shall Not Sleep, Though Poppies Grow
This Veteran’s Day will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The origins of Veteran’s Day itself links back to what was known as Armistice day, when the German forces surrendered and the decree was made that combat would cease on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The film Journey’s End was originally released in the fall of 2017 in the United Kingdom, but received a wider international release earlier this year to commemorate the bloody Spring Offensive campaign of 1918, a critical turning point that would give way to the end of The Great War. Journey’s End is the latest adaption of a world renowned stage play that has had many adaptations and iterations, to include a film version as far back as in 1930. This film has all the hallmarks of classical drama, bolstered by superb performances from contemporary seasoned actors and breathtaking modern cinematography.
One of the most important things about the story of Journey’s End which makes it so timeless is its exploration of PTSD, showing how the physical hell that soldiers endure creates a corresponding psychological hell that many can never escape. It is a phenomenon that has existed before we ever had a name for it, before “shell shock,”” battle fatigue,” “combat neurosis,” and as far back as the Ancient Greek historians and philosophers if not further. Post traumatic stress is not an acute illness, it is a human condition which has been with us since the dawn of civilization, since man first took up arms against his fellow man and lived on afterward to deal with the horror of the deed. The supposed “war to end all wars” is the ideal backdrop to explore this concept, where the brutality of humanity reached an unimaginable new threshold in a conflict that reshaped the planet in ways that even now we haven’t fully grasped.
SAJJAN SINGH RANGROOT
Journey’s End is an excellent film. One of the best of the year. It is also terribly British. I joke, but I have often lamented the fact that although American, French, British, and German tales of battle dominate our cultural understanding of WWI, there are many other perspectives that seldom get explored. This is why I was so excited to find the Punjabi war drama Sajjan Singh Rangroot showing at a local theater in Queens NY, available here in the states on the same date as its native Indian release.
Sajjan Singh Rangroot is a fictional story based on the real British Indian Army forces who fought in WWI in defense of the U.K. The Sikh’s are an ethno-religious group known for their bravery, their history filled with records of great battles. That valor is on full display in the movie, represented by hyperbolic action instead of grounded realism. The movie is full of cliches and melodrama, but this is in line with other Indian films and makes it stand out from the spate of other western war movies, particularly ones which fixate on the drudgery of trench warfrare. The mighty Sikh soldiers charge into battle possessed with divine spirit, fostering a mythology for a new generation. At the same time, the film also makes a point to directly address the racism the soldiers faced and the evils of colonialism, making the great sacrifice of the Sikhs for the sake of their oppressors and their own sense of honor all the more noble. Sajjan Singh Rangroot may be too campy for some, especially those not used to the rhythms of mainstream Indian films, but it nonetheless serves as a thrilling new perspective with which to consider a well known subject. If nothing else, I never expected to see a movie feature a full on Bollywood-style dance number in the midst of a WWI trench.
SGT STUBBY: AN AMERICAN HERO
In another twist on differing perspectives of WWI, I was surprised to find how much I enjoyed this animated children’s film. The movie tells a fun tale based on the real life Army war dog Stubby, who received many honors for meritorious service on the western front. This may sound like a bunch of tall tales to entertain little kids, but SGT Stubby was as legit hero, serving 18 months in the war and participating in 17 battles. The film details his extraordinary exploits from his days as a stray earning his place in a Connecticut training camp to many perilous missions in France alongside his handler Robert Conroy.
SGT Stubby works very well as an educational tool for young children to teach them about WWI. Helena Bonham Carter provides voice over establishing situational context of each major moment of the war. The movements on the battle map are presented in stylistic animatics that are easy for anyone to follow along. The film completely avoids any carnage or overt bloodshed, but at the same time it makes the gravity of the situation abundantly clear. The heartfelt bonds stubby makes with Robert and their fellow soldiers gives weight to all the brief moments of danger. SGT Stubby is full of light-hearted adventure that will serve as a great starting point for teaching a young child about the concept of war and is suitable for all ages. And in all honesty, certain moments brought a tear to this crusty old former sergeant’s eyes. I find myself getting increasingly emotional in war movies. I guess older age leaves ones heart more vulnerable, or maybe its just me waxing nostalgic for my time in the service. Whatever it may be, spending time with SGT Stubby provided me with a moment of relief and catharsis that was as potent as any serious adult drama.
III. After The Wounds
LEAVE NO TRACE
While many military action films based on the Global War on Terror struggle to find balance, dramas made about the grievous psychological wounds of combat have fared much better in exploring the cost of war. This year brought a handful of standout pieces. Chief among these is Leave No Trace, one of my favorite films of the year that also deserves recognition as a legitimate best picture contender.
Ben Foster stars as Will, a military veteran living in Portland, Oregon who is stricken with crippling PTSD via a trauma never specified. Unable to readjust to civilian life, he lives a survivalist outdoorsman’s existence with his teenage daughter Tom, played by newcomer Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie. Though seemingly stable, such an arrangement cannot last forever, and child protective services soon intervenes. Forced to reintegrate with the world, Will strains under the pressure, whereas Tom begins to thrive from new life experiences and the social bonds created with children her own age. As Will begins to breakdown, the film unfolds into an unlikely road trip. However, there is a fork at the end of this long road, and it is uncertain where it will lead our duo.
The weight of trauma can be pure suffering. Sometimes the gravity of that pain pulls in the ones you love. Leave No Trace explores this phenomenon remarkably, while also exploring a modern slice of Americana seldom seen. Director Debra Granik’s 2014 film Winter’s Bone was a breakthrough success, garnering much acclaim for herself and rising star Jennifer Lawrence. Her meticulous craft is once again on display here, anchored by another heavyweight performance by the leading man. Foster has been one of the premier actors of this generation who has the ability to portray the modern soldier with an unmatched authenticity, ferocity, and vulnerability. McKenzie counterbalances that intensity with a quiet resolve, mature beyond her years. The exquisite cinematography beautifully captures the pacific northwest in a way rarely seen in modern film, providing moments of tranquility and gloom in equal measure. An all around fine piece of work, Leave No Trace is not to be missed.
In regards to best picture contenders, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed has gotten far more traction, praise that I believe is well deserved. Ethan Hawke stars as Father Ernst Toller, former Army chaplain and current pastor at a small historical church in upstate New York. An encounter with a fellow veteran parishioner undergoing significant mental distress leads Toller down a path of despair and desperation, wondering if there is anything that can be done to save this decaying world.
First Reformed is obviously not a war film in the traditional sense, but one of the purposes of this overview project is to expand and evolve our perception of what a war film can be. Most movies about severe mental trauma from war usually involve an aspect of violence and/or self harm, and while that element is present here, I also appreciated its willingness to plumb the depths of sadness and debilitating depression that also occurs. Hawke imbues his character with an overwhelming, somber weariness that fills you with pity. This depression is used to great effect to contrast with his spiraling into a moral frenzy as he becomes consumed with environmentalist activism.
The environmental angle is a great encapsulation of the figurative sense of the chaos of our current predicament. The world feels like it is on fire, and in the case of the ongoing deadly wildfires in California, that calamity is quite literal. With the world in such catastrophic disarray, one can only flail to stay afloat, clinging to whatever can hold onto. I feel this particularly strongly having recently gotten out of the service and a life of conflict, ready to settle down into a peaceful civilian existence, only to find that I need to fight that much more against the hatred and ignorance that has corrupted our world. The despair is real, and I am glad to have a movie like First Reformed which expresses that. It feels like something inside long injured was at last mended, while simultaneously tearing open another old wound.
With all these heavy hitters receiving accolades, its easy for great work to fly under the radar. Such is the case with Bikini Moon, a riveting tale that is unlike any other Post-War movie in recent memory. Condola Rashad stars as Bikini, a highly charasmatic but incredibly unstable homeless veteran that captures the eye of a New York City independent film crew. Bikini becomes an obsession as they document her life, and the line boundary between exploration and exploitation becomes harder to discern.
Bikini Moon deftly incorporates topical elements such as social media and gentrification into its story about PTSD. The movie is as much a screed against hypocritical liberal white guilt as it is a rebuke of our failed healthcare system. In addition, there’s and intriguing sense that veterans returning from war are coming back to a place even more insane than anything they could have ever imagined. I sometimes get the feeling like everyone expects me to have some type of mental deficiency induced by my experiences at war, but more often than not, I feel like it’s everyone else here at home who has gone crazy. Bikini Moon is a mind bending experience driven by Rashad’s absolutely spectacular performance. The metaphors and themes might not cohere as well as the aforementioned movies, but she alone is well worth checking out.
IV. Mirror’s Edge
A PRIVATE WAR
Biopics are a funny thing, reflections of reality that are inherently skewed through the artifice of fiction. Recognizing that, there were still two standouts in the sub genre worth looking into this year. The first is A Private War, film about the exploits of legendary war correspondent Marie Colvin. Colvin reported on armed conflicts all around the world, to include Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Afghanistan, before finally meeting her untimely demise while covering the Syrian Civil War. The movie proves to be an excellent feature, but a bigger looming issue about films like this gnaws at me nonetheless. It’s an honorable tribute about an important subject, but I’m not certain it escapes the “white woman savior” trope. At least, in this case, the movie makes it very clear how powerless she is in the face of the machine of war despite her great inner strength. For as great as her obsession is to expose conflict for the world to see, she can only do so much.
Overall, I can’t help but think an actual documentary would have served the material better. The documentary style would be more suitable for a film about a journalist who sought to tell the whole truth. More precisely, the director Matthew Heineman is already well versed in documentary film making. His documentaries Cartel Land and City of Ghosts are both tremendous undertakings that have received critical acclaim. In this instance, I’m not sure the jump to fictional biopic was the best course of action. Outside of the film itself, it was a very interesting experience to see A Private War, a film about a courageous journalist who saw more death in combat than many soldiers, on a day when our draft dodging commander in chief and his dishonest press secretary directly attacked members the free press. Ultimately, A Private War reminds us of the conviction required for the truth to prevail, a lesson we would do well to take heed of.
The 15:17 TO PARIS
In our final segment, I want to discuss a film that received almost universally negative reviews, yet was nonetheless the most powerful experience I’ve had in theaters this year. The 15:17 To Paris is a fictionalized account of the 2015 Thalys train attack, in which an extremist opened fire on civilians in a train departing from Amsterdam, only to be subdued by a group of bystanders that included a small group of American service members and their friend on vacation. Of note, the film stars the real world heroes Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, and Alek Skarlatos playing themselves, and even includes some of the real world victims of the shooting reenacting their own experience in the train attack.
Clint Eastwood is a bold director who has made some controversial films in recent years, most infamously the biopic American Sniper. Many people decry that film as a maudlin and uneven piece of military propaganda. It was strange to find that The 15:17 to Paris feels very much like his own rebuttal to that film. Where American Sniper aggrandizes the iconography of the tortured macho military ubermench, 15:17 shows us an example of the current generation of young men immersed in the culture of military hero worship and religious fundamentalism and their journey to unlearn that mental conditioning through friendship and selfless service.
Spencer Stone is the de facto main character — most of the run time is spent detailing his experience as a young man and his enlistment into the US Air Force. Instead of glorifying Spencer, Eastwood ingeniously shows Stone’s tribulations as an overweight clumsy underachiever struggling to measure up to the greatness he believes is in his heart he is capable of. In the end, the stalwart young man who we see as a constant failure finally achieves his one fleeting moment of glory, coming to the aide of innocent people in their darkest hour.
The film is a strange mess of terrible performances and long moments of nothing happening. However, it was in these moments of awkward honesty and calm that I found real resonance.
My road through initial training was not seamless. I attended ‘split option’ training as a junior in high school, but getting in trouble in school upon my return brought down my grades, making me ineligible for the next phase and voiding my initial contract. Years later I attended advanced training, where I flunked out of several critical exams, forcing me to recycle and extend my training. Seeing Spencer’s trials — constantly failing despite best efforts and a positive attitude — rang very true to me. When Alek goes on his first combat deployment, he encounters the tedium and banality of interpersonal conflict, not a firestorm of violence and heroism that the movies and recruitment videos would have him believe to be an everyday occurrence. This mirrors the experience of so many soldiers in these many years of never-ending war. Like many of us say, deployments are months of boredom interspersed with brief seconds of pants-shitting terror. Once again, the film is true to life in that regard.
Upon it’s release, I saw a critic mock the film, saying something to the effect of “the most thrilling part of this boring movie is when Spencer has to decide which flavor of gellato to eat.” I know it’s a joke, but I remember after my first 15 month deployment to Iraq, I was overwhelmed by the amount of ice cream flavors in a modern German shopping mall. I was very fortunate to be able to return to a peaceful country village after witnessing such a prolonged bout of carnage and suffering.
In closing, this year has blessed us with war films covering a broad spectrum, from blockbuster action to pensive psychedelic character piece. Each film is an important part of our cultural consciousness and our understanding of war in the modern age. I hope this has given you something to think about and appreciate. As always, if there are other films related to this topic that you think deserve a mention, please sound off in the comments. Additionally, if you know a friend or family member who has military experience, please share this article with them. Hopefully, they will get something out of this process and provide some worthwhile feedback.
Take care, and Happy Veteran’s Day.