Ask a hundred military veterans “What are the most realistic war films of all time?” and you’ll get one of three basic answers. About half will just say “none,” which is true enough. Does sitting in a theater watching “Saving Private Ryan” on a screen really allow you to understand what it was like to be on Omaha Beach? Of the ones who venture an answer, about half of those will assume you’re asking which movies feature the most technically accurate depictions of actual combat and will name one of four or five plausible candidates that you’ve already heard of. The rest will look at you funny and ask something along the lines of, “What do you mean? Which part?”
Exactly. No one film can hope to capture the totality of the military experience. To be in the armed services is to spend time in a parallel universe that leaves its stamp on you permanently, whether you were in for three years or twenty. (Among other things, you use military slang for the rest of your life without noticing you’re doing it.)
So rather than rehash the same tired conversation about which films feature the most truthful scenes of combat (the answer, by the way, is “Band of Brothers”), let’s look at movies that best capture different individual facets of military life and deployment, of the people and experiences that make up that parallel universe. No movie gets all of it right, but some of them get little parts of it perfect.
An obvious choice, sure, but it hasn’t been topped. Because R. Lee Ermey has made a career essentially playing himself since his star turn in “Full Metal Jacket,” it’s easy to forget how revolutionary his performance was as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. Many know the story of how Ermey, a former Marine, was merely a technical adviser to the film until Stanley Kubrick realized he had hired the wrong man to play his fearsome drill instructor. Ermey was unleashed to do the role his own way – improvising lines and writing his own dialogue – and an iconic, convincing character was born. Ermey did something that no one had tried before: He took the timeworn, fundamentally ridiculous role of the screaming drill instructor and played it with a straight face instead of as a cartoon caricature. (He had actually played one nearly a decade earlier, in the little-remembered 1978 film “The Boys in Company C.”) He understood that drill sergeants are regular sergeants playing a character, and he played his character that way. The result was funny and terrifying and totally convincing. Like Daniel Craig’s current incarnation of James Bond, Ermey’s performance left all that had come before and most that have come since looking hokey and dated.
Sooner or later in the military you find yourself stuck inside some big metal machine or other, reflecting on how soft and vulnerable your own body is underneath all that steel and armor, and how helpless you are to control what happens to it in that moment. In a submarine, death hovers always a few feet away, on all sides, creating the perfect setting for Wolfgang Petersen’s masterwork, which follows a single patrol of a German U-Boat in World War II and stretches that helpless tension and anxiety across two and a half nearly unbearable hours (in the shortest of the film’s many cuts). Watch it in one sitting, in German with subtitles. You’ll need a drink afterward.
Telephones on deployment are evil. There should be no phones at war. Let me explain.
Think of it: You take a bunch of nineteen-year-olds, train them to fight, teach them to put aside all the drama and nonsense of their personal lives, ship them off to a war zone where the entirety of their daily existence is focused on their jobs, and then you inject all that drama and nonsense right back into their war zone heads on a daily basis courtesy of the telephone trailers found on every modern Forward Operating Base. (Make that telephone trailers featuring frequent call drops and a lengthy time lag so that it feels like you’re trading messages over a radio – “I love you, over.”) What you get is a bunch of distracted nineteen-year-olds who are supposed to be thinking about their jobs spending their time obsessing about their nineteen-year-old drama instead, thinking about their last emotionally fraught call home and counting the hours until they can get back to the trailer for today’s fraught phone call to rehash whatever yesterday’s drama was about.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s call home in “Jarhead,” in which he finally gets on the phone with his girlfriend for the first time in weeks and immediately vomits jealous obsession all over her before getting cut off, is the perfect specimen. It may have only lasted about thirty seconds, but that’s pretty much what half the real phone calls are like, just longer and more painful to overhear. I love soldiers to death, loved working with them and doing my best to take care of them. But they need to be kept away from phones overseas. When you go to war, you should go to war and be at war, and write letters home instead.
The First World War broke the West’s faith in itself, the effects of that disillusionment persisting in our culture today. It’s appropriate, then, that a film about that war offers what’s for my money the best portrayal of youthful naivete meeting its end in war. This Australian film follows the exploits of two young men from the rural west of that country, one an idealist played by Mark Lee, the other a streetwise cynic played by a young Mel Gibson, and their eventual enlistment in the Australian Army and participation in the failed Dardanelles Campaign against the Ottoman Empire. This film might have been simply patronizing in its treatment of the values of a genuinely simpler time, but the sympathy with which it handles these young men’s romanticism toward war lends greater power to its inevitable conclusion: not a good death, in the old sense, or even a bad or tragic one, but just a sudden, offhanded, unceremonious end to your existence.
Military servicemembers may be the most caricatured movie roles ever. The same tired types get written into every movie: Grizzled Old Sergeant; Naive Young Officer Who’s In Over His Head; Mildly Insane Colonel/General Who Sends His Troops into Pointless Slaughter Because He Believes in the Mission That Much; Tough But Loving Chaplain; Quiet Religious Soldier Who Gets Killed; Guy from Brooklyn. Films that try to break the mold don’t usually do much better, as these are typically “message” movies with an axe to grind – whether lionized or demonized, the characters end up as one-dimensional posters for someone’s agenda. Perhaps that’s why Ridley Scott’s tour de force recreation of what Somalis call the “Day of the Rangers” succeeded where so many others failed.
Though his movie attracted much criticism for its depictions of Somali people and culture, it is the only modern war movie I can think of in which the American soldiers seem like soldiers, not like actors trying too hard to “do soldier.” Ironically, “Black Hawk Down” was criticized by some for under-developed characters, though this never rang true to me. (It was a dramatic recreation of a single event, not a character study.) Whether it was good casting, the extensive training the actors received from a bevy of military consultants, or the docudrama-on-steroids approach Scott took to the film, this pre-9/11 movie does the best job at portraying post-9/11 soldiers – especially in the minor and supporting roles. Single best example: the two young Rangers covering a lonely street corner who realize that the convoy has left them behind and belatedly debate among themselves what to do, finally making their bickering way across the city to safety. “Humvees ain’t coming back, dude.” That’s soldiers.
The movie’s title may have flubbed military slang (you say “oh” dark thirty, not “zero”), but there was one thing it captured perfectly: the dry, black sense of humor military people develop in order to cope with the scary, dangerous, and generally absurd situations they routinely find themselves in. As the Navy SEALs in “Zero Dark Thirty” are flying through the night in overloaded, barely airworthy helicopters on their way to Usama bin Laden’s compound, one operator looks at the others and shouts, “How many of us have been in a helicopter crash?” Everyone in the copter raises his hand, and the guy nods his head with false optimism. “So we’re good!” he shouts. That’s military humor right there.
Few in the modern military will ever face the prospect of the hopeless, essentially suicidal mission, but war movies love the topic. Because it’s hard to imagine what that moment would actually be like, typically they cheat by showing a leader giving some big rousing “Braveheart” speech beforehand that riles his soldiers into such a state that they forget about their own imminent demise and just can’t wait to fight. “Glory” takes a more honest-seeming approach with Matthew Broderick’s character, just before the film’s final scenes depicting the failed assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Broderick, playing the youthful Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, hands a packet of personal letters to a reporter and takes a moment to himself, looking out at the ocean, before joining his regiment for the march on the fort (and more or less skipping that big movie speech). It’s all there in the fear and grieving on his face: This is actually happening. No way around it, only through. For a moment you can stand in his boots and imagine facing down the knowledge that all the life you’ve lived to that point is all you get, that you’re watching your last sunset and there are probably no more mornings ahead of you. And you can truly appreciate the courage of those who faced that moment and went on through anyway.
Coming home from deployment is tough on everyone. It’s great, but it’s disorienting and surreal. You forget how to do basic things like drive a car safely in traffic, and the simplest civilian situations can leave you feeling weirdly incompetent. I remember leaving Iraq for my own two-week leave, tracing a winding path of midnight flights and long waits across the globe, until I was disgorged into a passenger terminal in Atlanta, travelers jostling and hustling, TVs blaring CNN, and me standing there in the same dusty uniform I’d been wearing when I climbed onto the helicopter at Camp Ramadi. I have never felt more out of place and out at sea in my life.
A number of war movies of our era have placed the experience of coming home at the center of their stories, but none have captured it better in a single brief moment than the scene in “The Hurt Locker” in which Jeremy Renner, freshly returned from Iraq, stands helplessly in a supermarket aisle before a yawning wall of cereal boxes and realizes he doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing and doesn’t know how to be home anymore. Other parts of the movie took some deserved licks from veterans over their realism or lack thereof, but this moment was perfect.
I know: It’s not a movie, it’s a TV miniseries. But string those ten episodes (nearly twelve hours) together and it’s the longest and best war film ever made, simply because it is the most adult. Its producers eschewed all the familiar treatments of all the familiar themes (loss of buddies, sacrifice, fear and bravery, motivations for fighting) and handled these issues through the truthful lens of human friendship and sadness, without glamorization or condemnation. Its scenes of combat are not central to the series but are presented with more honesty and desperation than the much-praised scenes of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down,” both of which were technically dazzling but neither of which could fully resist injecting their depictions of fighting with a certain cinematic flourish, with the false distant romance of combat.
“Band of Brothers” turns its considerable budget and technical prowess to the same task in a way that makes nearly every other war movie feel basically false, like all the rest of them were made by little boys playing war. The end result is completely unsentimental yet deeply moving. Not for nothing, it’s a film that both genders seem to appreciate equally, at least in my unscientific sample. How many husbands and boyfriends ever thought they’d hear their wives and girlfriends say “We should watch that again sometime” about a war movie? That’s saying something right there.
Editor’s Note: John Renehan served in the Army’s Third Infantry Division as a field artillery officer in Iraq. He previously worked as an attorney in New York City. He lives with his family in Virginia. His first novel, The Valley, is now available.