Even with my father, uncle, and both grandfathers in the military, I grew up not actually knowing what Memorial Day was about. These are the movies—some better, some worse—that help me remember.
If they aren’t here (Platoon, A Bridge Too Far), I haven’t seen them. Yet.
ranked from least to most offensive
The Great Raid (2005)
Directed by John Dahl. Starring James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes.
Synopsis: Taking place towards the end of WWII, 500 American Soldiers have been entrapped in a camp for 3 years. Beginning to give up hope they will ever be rescued, a group of Rangers goes on a dangerous mission to try and save them.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: The Great Raid is a true story that tries very hard to be a powerful movie and fails by more than a little. The plot and cast were capable of much more, but the screenplay (based on two separate books) and directing fumbled both. That said, it’s certainly a decent film and one that WWII buffs should go for. It just doesn’t quite make the cut here.
The Patriot (2000)
Directed by Roland Emmerich. Starring Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, Jason Isaacs.
Synopsis: Peaceful farmer Benjamin Martin is driven to lead the Colonial Militia during the American Revolution when a sadistic British officer murders his son.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: I enjoy large chunks of this movie, but it does get cheesier every time I watch it. Great casting and a brilliant musical score (thanks, John Williams) can’t quite compete with anachronisms, sentimentalism, and cloying melodrama. The Patriot doesn’t deal with the heart of the War for Independence and comes dangerously close to reducing it to one short-tempered man’s quest for vengeance.
The Kingdom (2007)
Directed by Peter Berg. Starring Jamie Fox, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner.
Synopsis: A team of US government agents is sent to investigate the bombing of an American facility in the Middle East.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: The Kingdom doesn’t have much worth saying and when it does, it stutters. Not even the combat was exciting (and I’m easily excited). Politically, it’s a mess.
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Ryan Phillippe, Barry Pepper, Joseph Cross.
Synopsis: The life stories of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima, a turning point in WWII.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: I gave up trying to navigate my way through this slow, muddled, sentimental slop. Out of respect for the men, I’ll go try the book.
The Pacific (2010)
Starring James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello, Jon Seda.
Synopsis: A 10-part mini-series from the creators of Band of Brothers telling the intertwined stories of three Marines during America’s battle with the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: I have twice started this miniseries and twice turned it off after the third episode. At first I wondered if that was just me, but then I checked this review and decided I was justified in not caring at all about the men, the action, or the battle in the Pacific the way they are presented here:
The Pacific is dominated by a subtext: a surfeit of gore, an atmosphere of moral ambiguity and moral equivalence (e.g., repeated scenes of American brutality and the noble dedication of the Japanese soldier), a breathtaking indifference to historical fact and the strategic picture…. Indeed, the critics of this shoddy, lurid, and sensationalized production, who say it is a insult to the military, are not far off the mark. In short, The Pacific is another unsavory exhibit of America’s unquenchable appetite for “slob culture,” and viewers taken in by the sexual sleaze, gore, pseudo-realism, and melodrama of this amateur production need to take stock…. The problem here is historical authenticity and a fundamental lack of seriousness.
That settled it.
Green Zone (2010)
Directed by Paul Greengrass. Starring Matt Damon, Jason Isaacs, Greg Kinnear.
Synopsis: Discovering covert and faulty intelligence causes a US Army officer to go rogue as he hunts for Weapons of Mass Destruction in an unstable region.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: More delusion than grandeur. Everything about this movie—from the treatment of the Bush-era’s search for WMDs to Jason Isaac’s handlebar mustache of villainy—is insultingly simplistic. Green Zone sprints along with hand-held-camera realism and some cool military action, but that’s about all the movie is worth. Shallow, incomplete, biased, cliché, and unprofessional. Far below Paul Greengrass’s typical craft.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
Directed by Terrenc Malick. Starring Sean Penn, James Caviezel, Nick Nolte.
Synopsis: In World War II, the outcome of the battle of Guadalcanal will strongly influence the Japanese advance into the Pacific theater. A group of young soldiers is brought in as a relief for the battle-weary Marines. The exhausting fight for a strategically-positioned airfield that allows control over a 1000-mile radius puts the men of the Army rifle company C-for-Charlie through hell. The horrors of war form the soldiers into a tight-knit group; their emotions develop into bonds of love and even family. The reasons for this war get further away as the world for the men gets smaller and smaller until their fighting is for mere survival and the life of the other men with them.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day: That plodding synopsis which I just stole from IMDB is actually much more interesting than the movie itself. Long, boring, philosophical, introspective, confused, and confusing with random nature pix and underwater shots of beautiful children swimming all so innocent and far away from war but a soldier just dived into the water so did he turn into a child and what does that even mean? I dragged myself to the finish line just to see how bad it got by the end. Despite some strong scenes and performances (especially Nick Nolte’s), I realized that I hated, hated, Terrence Malick, and I’ve avoided him ever since.
If anyone knows why I shouldn’t hate this movie, by all means drop a compelling argument in the comments and I promise to do a one-eighty.
Lone Survivor (2013)
Directed by Peter Berg. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster.
Synopsis: Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.
Why it’s not good for Memorial Day:
Again in my mind I heard that terrible, terrible scream, the same one that awakens me, bullying its way into my solitary dreams, night after night, the confirmation of guilt. The endless guilt of the survivor.
“Help me, Marcus! Please help me!”
It was a desperate appeal in the mountains of a foreign land. It was a scream cried out in the echoing high canyons of one of the loneliest places on earth. It was the nearly unrecognizable cry of a mortally wounded creature. And it was a plea I could not answer. I can’t forget it. Because it was made by one of the finest people I ever met, a man who happened to be my best friend.
My hopes were high for Lone Survivor. Marcus Luttrell’s book is my favorite war memoir, but never mind the fact that I had the right to demand a worthy movie. These men deserved it. And Peter Berg failed them. Despite recreating certain moments of the SEALs’ last stand with relentless severity, Berg cheats the American audience of a proper elegy for these four soldiers and dishonors the men themselves with a Hollywood action flick that is filled with frivolous fiction and leaves out many of real life’s most poignant details.
Let’s talk basic facts, starting with a seemingly (but not really) small one. Mark Wahlberg is just too darn old. He was 41 playing a 29-year-old. Trivial? Hardly. One of the most astounding realities about Luttrell’s ordeal is that he was as young as he was when he lost three of his best friends on the same harrowing day and then survived several more days of torture and hiding before being rescued. Wahlberg is a perfectly capable actor, but his age lessens the punch. Either Chris Hemsworth or Armie Hammer would have been great casting choices, and they are both (coincidentally) much closer to Luttrell’s towering height of 6’5,” something which actually made being a SEAL harder for Luttrell, not easier, and so should have been a priority when scouting for actors.
But the grievous sins are in the story. Berg deserves kudos for nailing details like physical injuries and SEAL uniforms and for following in the footsteps of Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down with all the tight editing and heart-pounding realism, but both of those strengths are self-contradictory when contrasted with the creative license he took in telling the rest.
The movie Danny Dietz (played by Emile Hirsch) gets freaked out at the sight of his first injury and dies alone on a ridge where he has fallen behind, which is far from merely mildly pathetic. He’s a SEAL, for Pete’s sake—he suffered worse in Hell Week. The real Dietz, true to the SEAL code, was an unstoppable machine who, though riddled with bullets, refused to quit and even kept up cover-fire for his friends as they dragged him away—until a round struck him in the face and he died. Instantly. In Luttrell’s arms.
I don’t know how quickly hearts break, but that nearly broke mine…. I dragged Danny off the open ground maybe five feet, and then I said good-bye to him. I lowered him down, and I had to leave him or else die out here with him. But I knew one thing for certain. I still had my rifle and I was not alone, and neither was Danny…. I left him with God.
Matthew “Axe” Axelson (Ben Foster, uncannily good at wearing his characters like his own skin) is portrayed more accurately for the most part, but his dying words are inflated with typical Hollywood overkill. Movie: “If I die, I need you to make sure that Cindy knows how much I love her. And that I died with my brothers. With a full f—ing heart.”
“Marcus, they got us good, man.” He spoke with difficulty, as if trying to concentrate. And then he said, ‘You stay alive, Marcus. And tell Cindy I love her.”
Those were his last words. I just sat there, and that was where I planned to stay, right there with Axe so he wouldn’t be alone.
But the worst changes come in the most gut-wrenching loss of all—that of Luttrell’s best friend, Mike Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), the man whose screams he still hears in his sleep.
Mikey was still firing, but suddenly I heard him scream my name, the most bone-chilling primeval scream: “Help me, Marcus! Please help me!” He was my best friend in all the world, but he was thirty yards up the mountain, and I could not climb to him. I could hardly walk, and if I’d moved two yards out of my protected position, they would have hit me with a hundred rounds…. All the time, he was screaming, calling out my name, begging me to help him live…. Every time it happened, I felt like I’d been stabbed. There were tears welling uncontrollably out of my eyes, not for the first time on this day….
And then, as suddenly as it began, the screaming stopped. There was silence for a few seconds, as if even those Taliban warriors understood that Mikey had died. I moved slightly forward and looked up there, in time to see four of them come down and fire several rounds into his fallen body.
The screaming had stopped. For everyone except me. I still hear Mikey, every night. I still hear that scream above all other things, even above the death of Danny Dietz…. There were one or two frightening occasions when I heard it in broad daylight and found myself pressed against a wall, my hands covering my ears.
In the movie, there are no screams. The cruelty is absent, the suffering almost entirely Mikey’s alone as he is given a quiet, gracious moment to die with dignity: no prolonged agony, no pleading, no crying out. The movie Luttrell hardly even seems aware of his friend’s death; indeed, the two hardly seem friends at all. It is a stunningly stupid change. I can occasionally understand the urge to give nonfiction some extra spice, but this rubbish? It’s more than stupid, it’s disrespectful and degrading, born of Berg’s irreverent, obtuse, and arrogant assumption that he knows better than history. Fie on you, Peter Berg.
The back third of the film then tailspins into a sheer mockery of Luttrell’s nightmare. In real life, he was taken to an Afghan village where he was found and beaten by guerrillas until the villagers stood up and protected him—without a shot fired. Luttrell spent five tense days drawing maps of the area on his injured thigh in preparation for his escape, but was quietly (though triumphantly) rescued by Army Rangers. And his original target, Ahmad Shah, was killed by Pakistani police three years later.
Peter Berg shrinks Luttrell’s captivity to about a day, but it’s one heck of a ride: first a near-beheading, then a big battle with all sorts of villagers dying for the sake of their American guest/captive, then a laughably hyperbolized rescue mission by US forces who strafe the bad guys, save the village, and manage to knock off Ahmad Shah. Add to that another near-death experience with Luttrell going into cardiac arrest in the helicopter, and you’ve got Expendables, not Lone Survivor.
The victory which Peter Berg infuses in the story’s end flies in the face of Luttrell’s own account. Grateful to God for his life, Luttrell doesn’t consider the mission—or surviving it—a success at all. “We didn’t win, we lost,” he says. “You can’t switch that any way in a book, in a movie, or anything like that. You can’t turn that around and make it look like we won. We didn’t win, we lost. So me coming out alive, that’s not a victory. Some people see it like that, it’s not. It’s not a victory at all.”
One last big thing. Marcus Lutrell’s story is a story of faith. Ironclad trust in God is what propelled his will to fight, to survive, to come home. His memoir is every soldier’s Psalm 23; it is a fighting man’s credo; it is bolted to the four corners of the Cross. But where is this in the movie? Wahlberg’s Luttrell makes one passing remark that “God’s looking after us,” and that’s it. The rest of the movie is as empty of God as an atheist’s prayer book.
Had Peter Berg paid more homage to both the details and the overall thrust of the book, his salute would have been one the world could not ignore. As it is, he has created something to be avoided every day of the year—especially Memorial Day.
ranked from least to most amazing
Directed by David Ayer. Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal.
Synopsis: April, 1945. As the Allies make their final push in the European Theatre, a battle-hardened Army sergeant named Wardaddy commands a Sherman tank and his five-man crew on a deadly mission behind enemy lines. Outnumbered, out-gunned, and with a rookie soldier thrust into their platoon, Wardaddy and his men face overwhelming odds in their heroic attempts to strike at the heart of Nazi Germany.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: War is hell, and the men who wage it are often worse. That’s pretty much the only point of Fury…unless you have the stomach to stick around and look a little closer.
Let’s get complaints out of the way first. Fury didn’t change my life—and it could and should have. If you’ve seen End of Watch (which I recommend only very carefully), then you know that writer/director David Ayer can shoot a compelling scene; nobody’s questioning his talent for making you feel like you’re there, whether you want to be or not. But Fury’s story is shapeless, uneven, relentlessly unpleasant, and frequently not much worth it, riding as it does on the backs of characters we hardly know and largely dislike.
Sergeant “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is a cynical, merciless leader who might conceivably take prisoners on occasion, but only so he can personally execute them later. His crew is comprised mostly of hyper foul-mouthed, disillusioned, bickering brutes who, realistically, ought to have blown themselves up by now.
But then comes Norman Ellison.
Norman (Logan Lerman) is more than what he first appears: a jumpy, freshly showered recruit yanked straight off his typewriter. He is, down to his bones, a good man. He resists shooting an unarmed prisoner not because he’s naive, but because he’s just. He refuses to blow holes in dead bodies not because he’s raw, but because he doesn’t want to become like the cold-blooded soldier who orders him to pull the trigger. (As for the prolonged scene in the German house, I wish he had left that girl alone, though even here his conduct is clearly kind and gentlemanly—especially in contrast with his animalistic comrades.)
Norman grows into a good fighter, but he maintains his conscience as he vowed he would at the beginning. It’s Norman whom “Coon-Ass” (aptly named—by far the crassest of the team) calls a good man. It’s Norman who volunteers first to stay behind in a fight he knows they cannot win, sparking a stand-your-ground resolve in the weaker crew.
And it’s Norman who is preserved in the end. Wardaddy, ordering him to escape the tank at the last minute, seems to be telling us that this war—every just war—is fought to protect innocence like Norman’s. Not a duck-your-head-in-the-sand kind of innocence, but a strong-boned virtue that can spare a life, protect a girl, and respond “Here am I; send me” when God calls. Wardaddy has sharpened Norman into a tool of war, but it is Norman who helps the jaded vet remember why they are fighting in the first place.
Fury is an inconsistently talented movie with a consistently talented cast (especially Brad and Logan). It boasts some terrific tank warfare—the only WW2 film ever to use a genuine Tiger I—and runs the gut-wrenching realism launched by Saving Private Ryan further down the field. But what it offers best isn’t war or Wardaddy; it’s a hero who knows how to quote God, and furthermore, how to fight like Him.
As the camera pulls back on the last shot, we see where Norman has chosen his Alamo: on a perfect cross, where the bodies of slain S.S. twist the corners of the four roads into a muddy swastika.
Act of Valor (2012)
Directed by Mike McKoy and Scott Waugh. Starring Roselyn Sanchez, Nestor Serrano, Alex Veadov, active-duty Navy SEALs.
Synopsis: An elite team of Navy SEALs embarks on a covert mission to recover a kidnapped CIA agent.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: Act of Valor received the most shrill, disgruntled, irritated, and more than vaguely pathetic criticism I’ve seen dished out on any movie. It pushed a lot of buttons. Stepped on a lot of P.C. toes. Slugged a lot of tender, sleepy faces. Do you think it just might have done something right?
Many things, actually. No, it isn’t perfect, and if I could change just three things, they’d be the music (especially the opening five minutes; just—no strings, please), dialogue here and there, but mostly the glorious sunset glow over the whole thing. The movie’s real weakness is spotty, low-grade mawkishness, but nothing that couldn’t be fixed with a grittier soundtrack (or no soundtrack at all), tougher talk, and a more documentaryesque, you-are-there vibe. Give it a shot of Kathryn Bigelow.
But overall, the movie fulfills its own mission: Honor the men. True, Navy SEALs can’t act. But most of this movie isn’t acting. True, it’s essentially a recruiting poster brought to life. Um…so? And true, it’s massively gung ho. Well, these are SEALs. This movie is a tribute to the best of the best, and if that’s its biggest crime, you can count me guilty by association. The only reason our bugles can play Taps with any honesty is because of dudes like these.
Hold that salute. Here’s to damn few.
Directed by Jonathan Mastow. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Harvey Keitel, Bill Paxton.
Synopsis: A German submarine is boarded by disguised American submariners trying to capture their Enigma cipher machine.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: No submarine movie can ever beat The Hunt for Red October, but this one is pretty good on its own. The Americans (led by Matthew McConaughey) are supposed to capture a crippled German U-boat, but end up forced to sail it back themselves through enemy territory with German planes outside, mutinous crew inside, and a ton of sea water that just might crush them first. It’s fast, hard, tense, and non-stop twisty. The acting is just occasionally shoddy and the directing less than mature.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
Directed by Werner Herzog. Starring Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies.
Synopsis: A US Fighter pilot’s epic struggle of survival after being shot down on a mission over Laos during the Vietnam War.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: The film starts off on two left feet and struggles with rhythm throughout, but has Christian Bale to thank for making that almost totally irrelevant. Very much worth watching.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie.
Synopsis: During the Iraq War, a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad is put at at odds with his squad mates due to his maverick way of handling his work.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: Kathryn Bigelow’s first big war flick is a bit bipolar. On the one hand, it was by far the realest combat movie I’d seen to date. I could smell the desert sand, feel the sweat in my eyes, taste the tension inside the bomb suit helmet, wander around the barracks and wonder if anything was going to happen any time soon. Yet the movie is also quite unbelievable. Jeremy Renner’s devilish cockiness and continual middle finger to all rules regarding personal safety should have gotten him killed a long time ago, if his frustrated buddies didn’t kill him first. Real-life EOD guys complained about the second part, but you should watch it for the first.
Another reason the movie shows up low on the list: Renner’s hero is no hero. He’s a talented nut job addicted to war who abandons his family to go do what he loves. Not cool.
Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller.
Synopsis: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: I’d like to make two big points about American Sniper—one about the movie, one about the ruckus.
First, the movie ain’t perfect. It falls short of the book, which is to say it falls short of the story God told first. While Bradley Cooper reincarnates Chris Kyle scary well and Clint Eastwood can obviously handle war, the arc of the story is gone, replaced by a very episodic, impersonal rhythm. In the book, Kyle moves emphatically from one set of priorities (God, country, family, in that order) to another (God, family, country). In the movie, this shift is much less clear. His faith, less clear. His reasons, less clear.
Along the way, the movie also neglects plumbing the depths of the real guy—both gold and dross. Chris Kyle was more honest, more humble, less stoic, more macho, more saint, more sinner. The tough SEAL completely fell apart when his buddy got hurt. He picked more bar fights. He cussed louder, sinned bolder, prayed oftener, and repented deeper. There are hints of all this in the film—but they remain mostly hints. (Sort of like the doll was the hint of a real baby.)
All in all, I enjoyed the film just fine, but I didn’t connect with it as much as I did the book, nor respect (or rebuke) its hero as much. Given all the great war movies out there, I’m not dying to see this one again.
But the second point is what makes me swing the other way. Thanks to all the commotion American Sniper caused once it hit theaters, I’m tempted to like it more than I naturally would. On the one hand, we have liberals who gag if they catch so much as a whiff of even tarnished patriotism (which made me very glad the movie kicked so much butt at the box office), but I don’t really care about them. I care more about the wildly undiscerning criticism from my Christian conservative/libertarian/freedom-loving friends who seem more in line with “the idiot who praises, with enthusiastic tone, all centuries but this, and every country but his own.” I’m talking about the folks who glibly label Chris Kyle a mass murderer, quote his opinions out of context in order to fulminate against his “racism” and whatnot, and generally spit on his grave without so much as a tip of the hat for what this God-fearing, imperfect warrior got right.
I don’t know everything about the mess in the Middle East, before or after 9-11. But then, nobody does. Except God. With decades of conflict piled high and politicians’ lies piled higher, our duty as individual patriots is simply to make the wisest decisions based on the information we do have. Chris Kyle was working with such limited information, though it was a lot clearer back in 2001 than it is in 2015 after a long and feckless war. By now, the US should have been long gone from the Middle East—I’ll grant you that. But Chris served years ago. The line (now blurred) was drawn pretty stark in the dust of New York and D.C. 14 years ago. Hence, folks who argue that America categorically should not be in the Middle East at all and therefore Chris Kyle is a mass murderer simply aren’t examining the timeline closely enough. Unless, of course, they disagree with my understanding that September 11 deserved an armed response in 2001.
Already a SEAL when the planes hit the World Trade towers, Chris went to war to get the terrorists responsible for the attacks and to defend his country against more. And here’s a note to those who rightly detest American imperialism: Defending your country doesn’t mean your country is perfect or that her police stick ought to clean up the world or that she has a spotless record in the lands from whence the terrorists came. As far as Chris was concerned, defending his country was simply what God called him to do. Whatever political motives Bush had and whatever the war has since evolved into under Obama, those were his reasons. And they were just and right and good.
Another charge leveled against him: racism. This card gets played so many times these days, it’s almost too tattered for me to take down here, but I’ll give it a go. The answer is simple: Read the book. The whole book. Chris gets pretty vicious condemning the barbarism he witnessed over there, but he condemns the barbarism, not the race as a whole. In fact, one of the things that got him worked up the most was their willingness to sacrifice their own children as suicide bombers or collateral damage—meaning he clearly cared for the people as people. He just didn’t give a hoot about killing maniacs like those who speared our towers with our own planes. Nor do I think he necessarily should have. Killing shouldn’t be a thrill (and it wasn’t for Kyle), but it doesn’t have to tear you apart, either.
I’ll be the first to say Chris Kyle was a flawed man serving a flawed country. When I have sons, I will point to him as a model for a few key virtues (guts, discipline, leadership, extraordinary toughness, a sterling protective backbone, stubborn faith in God) as well as a warning for several big faults: pride, a short fuse, lack of self-control in booze and in bed, near inability to admit he’s human, slowness to follow God’s bit and bridle. But a murderer he was not. Nor a racist. And as for Christians who see fit to “serve their country” by slandering a man who tried his durnedest to die for it, I’ll point to them as an example of what patriotism is not.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Starring Jessica Chastain, Joel Edgerton, Jason Clarke, Chris Pratt.
Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May 2011.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: Navy SEALs don’t like to talk about their feats, but in this case it’s an honor for others to break their silence for them. Though a few technical details of the raid on Osama bin Ladin are puzzlingly off (why would you yell a warning that you were about to blow down a door when it’s the bad guy’s door?), this is a finely crafted movie crackling with Bigelow’s signature realism and hold-your-breath anxiety. Jessica Chastain is steely and wonderful and should be trusted with anything. And by the way, people, let’s stop freaking out over the film’s “promotion” of torture. Bigelow seldom promotes anything, though she does invite us (in her grim, understated way) to be discerning and pass judgment when necessary. The conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty is that however unpleasant parts of the job were, it was a job well done not because the ends justify the means, but because (let’s face it) waterboarding at the right place and at the right time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I seriously have a hard time getting worked up over it.
The Great Escape (1963)
Directed by John Sturges. Starring Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson.
Synopsis: Based on a true story, a group of allied escape artist-type POWs are all put in an “escape-proof” camp. Their leader decides to try to take out several hundred all at once. The first half of the film is played for comedy as the prisoners mostly outwit their jailers to dig the escape tunnel. The second half is high adventure as they use boats and trains and planes to get out of occupied Europe.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: We shall fight in the prison camp, we shall fight in the tunnels, we shall fight through the barbed wire, we shall fight in enemy territory, we shall never surrender. This old classic—not To End All Wars—shows how prisoners of war should conduct themselves. It also features actual war heroes (Richard Attenborough, James Garner) as well as several real WWII POWs, and is one of the only movies on this list that could suit kids.
Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones.
Synopsis: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top-secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending USA ideals.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: I knew literally zero about Captain America when I watched this several years ago, but I don’t think it was entirely my fault that it felt rather like speed-flipping through a comic book (maybe several comic books): a slew of good plots racing after a hero who swaps character depth for flashy stunts and steely pecs. But that said, the Cap is a man I would follow. Anywhere. Happy Memorial Day.
Sergeant York (1941)
Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Gary Cooper.
Synopsis: True story of a hillbilly sharpshooter drafted in WWI despite his claim to be a pacifist, who ends up becoming a war hero.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: I watched this so long ago that I don’t remember the details, only that this story of the most decorated American soldier of World War I immediately became my favorite black-and-white film. Pacifists, fall in.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo. Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan.
Synopsis: Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: Iron Man is the cleverer character and Avengers is the funner film, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the most important superhero flick to date. The movie is patriotism fitly spoken with a goodly amount of rousing Marvel-style party-action, just the right dose of downtime that allows characters to grow and audience to breathe, and snappy dialogue that is a pitch-perfect medley of humor, self-satire, polemic, and Fourth of July. Is the movie flawless? No, but gutsy, relevant, and darn well near it.
I’m referring, of course, to the movie’s damning critique of the all-seeing, all-powerful, all-self-righteous nanny state who spies in the name of safety and murders in the name of protection. Project Insight’s scary overreach brings to mind the NSA’s recent domestic spying, the moral mess of preemptive justice, and especially Obama’s kill list, which the directors say is the actual subject of the film. “The question is where do you stop?” says Joe Russo, at the helm with his brother Anthony. “If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there’s 1,000? What if we find out there’s 10,000? What if it’s a million? At what point do you stop?”
These are revolutionary tactics that highlight fallen man’s impatience with the problem of evil. When you lack faith in a just God who has claimed vengeance for Himself and promises to deliver the oppressed, then it’s easy to claim the right to strike evil before it actually raises its head—whether out of a misguided sense of justice or (more likely, today) out of Machiavellian power-lust. But no matter how advanced your spy-technology is, you can never predict for sure. You never know. God is the one who looks on the heart; we see only the outside.
Captain America doesn’t draw all these conclusions out as far as it could have, but it does punch home the difference between “freedom and fear,” standing shoulder to shoulder with prophetic films like Enemy of the State (which warns us of the oppression of a Sauron-eyed government) and Minority Report (which exposes the ethical catastrophe of stopping criminals before they crime).
But I must add something about the temptation to sentimentality and nostalgia. I grew up on my granddad’s old war songs (“Let’s remember Pearl Harbor, as we go to meet the foe; let’s remember Pearl Harbor, as we did the Alamo…”) and I know the strong pull to glorify the supposed golden age of the 1940s. The movie is obviously a salute to this older America. When the gloves come off, the Captain makes a telling move, swapping his modern, murkier-toned uniform for his WWII battle garb, and we all cheer as one of the last survivors of the Greatest Generation marches off to fix what his country has become… But was it really?
The so-called “greatest” generation, the same warriors who defeated Nazi Germany, raised the debauched of the 60s and 70s. Their own children voted in an evil far worse than the Fuhrer. Somewhere, something slipped, and as holy as the Captain’s love for his country is, we need more than raw, old fashioned patriotism to turn things around. America doesn’t need to resurrect the Greatest Generation, she needs resurrection from the dead.
The Russo brothers play the fife and drums and put duty, honor, country on the brain, and if—by some miracle—they have the daring to include the forgotten God of this country next time around, then Captain America 3 will be captain indeed.
Directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Jai Courtney, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock.
Synopsis: After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: I watched Unbroken at midnight the day after Christmas, just a few hours before hopping on a plane and touring a good part of the world still scarred by World War 2. I listened to the soundtrack (especially Coldplay’s “Miracles”) almost nonstop for three weeks: train after train, watching medieval German towns, white-capped mountains, and green French glades roll by.
That song became the trip. I saw Louie Zamperini’s suffering and redemption overlaid on the remains of the Berlin Wall, on the gray cobblestones that tasted Stauffenberg’s blood, on the icy mud of the Nazi colosseum, on the name tags bearing the identifies of millions of murdered Jews, on the cold cement floor of the crematorium in Dachau, on the packed sand and calm, curling waves of Omaha Beach, as if Louie’s story completed the stories of those whose tragedies never turned to comedies in this life.
So that might explain a bit of why I love the movie so. But I didn’t have to like it. In fact, I had expected not to—first, because I adored the book. Number-one favorite on my shelf. Second, because the trailers made me cringe. That darn nostalgic blush. Yet another WW2 movie casting a golden haze over the 1940s. It looked like a faithy schmaltz fest. Plus, Angelina Jolie had only a couple films (one a documentary) under her director’s belt and I especially doubted this skinny, large-nosed kid named Jack O’Connell.
I’m not sure exactly when I changed my mind, but it was sometime during the first few seconds as American planes appear as dots on a horizon of blended sea and sky. Inside are young soldiers—kids—ready to die for their country. And at the center is Louie Zamperini, about to be thrown into an ocean of sharks. Awaiting him is a far greater ocean of far darker misery. Somehow, those opening seconds said it all. I started (warily) to trust the film.
A rocky patch follows with clumsy flashbacks to Louie’s childhood. His rebellion is toned down; his father’s discipline seems harsh; the preacher speaks anemic rigmarole about how God needs evil or something, which is far different from explaining how God chooses to tell a good story with it.
Then Louie begins to run and the movie finds its stride. The glow becomes unnoticeable. Jolie directs with a light touch where Steven Spielberg and other greats would have wrung the story’s neck for every last drop of pathos. Alexandre Desplat, whose music tends to swing between two extremes—flies at a barbecue (The Ghost Writer) and understated brilliance (The King’s Speech)—is sublime. The most horrible moments are perfectly silent. No overwrought strings here.
But the king of all is that skinny, large-nosed kid named Jack O’Connell. How can he be only 23? He is an astounding force. Critics have complained that the movie offers nothing that we haven’t seen in other POW films. They are crazy. Other POW films don’t have Jack. He is simply brilliant. Nobody besides Jim Caviezel has had to portray so much pain and not even Jim achieved such a level of horrible believability.
I could wish the film had devoted less time to the raft and more to Louie’s post-war conversion—the moment when an unbroken man finds himself, for the first time, broken on the Rock. This is the book’s central point, the hinge of Louie’s life, and if anyone could have handled such a challenging, overtly religious scene, it is the team of Unbroken. But I can also (almost) understand the decision to leave viewers with a mere taste of the rest of the story, stirring our curiosity for what could possibly have persuaded a man who had suffered such hell to forgive his captors.
Louie’s son, Luke Zamperini, gives the best defense for cutting the movie short. “What my father was most pleased about…is how Angelina handled the subject of his Christian faith,” he said, adding that both he and his father approved specifically of the decision to cut off the movie early:
That is exactly the way my Dad and our entire family wanted it. As he said in his autobiography, Devil at My Heels, “The great commandment is that we preach the gospel to every creature, but neither God nor the Bible says anything about forcing it down people’s throats.”… That was his greatest hope for the film version of Unbroken: not that it would be applauded by fellow Christians, although he certainly would have been honored and humbled by their appreciation; but that it would be seen by non-Christians drawn to a rousing epic about the indomitable human spirit who, when the credits have finished rolling, might just discover there’s a whole lot more to his story than that.
Overall, the movie tasted just like the book, it simply didn’t fill me quite as much; like a few test-bites of Thanksgiving dinner before you sit down to feast. Walking out of the theater into the ice-cold, starlit parking lot just after midnight, I felt energy and gratitude pumping through me. I had never been so deeply, deeply satisfied with a movie that didn’t technically get everything right. I couldn’t wait to get to heaven and meet this man—and the Man who saved him.
I had to run.
I turned on “Miracles” and went to Europe.
Tears of the Sun (2003)
Directed by Antoine Fuqua. Starring Bruce Willis, Monica Bellucci, Cole Hauser.
Synopsis: A Navy SEAL commander leads his team into the Nigerian jungle in order to rescue an American doctor…who refuses to leave unless they agree to rescue 70 refugees too.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: I’m sure military buffs and film critics alike have legitimate beefs with this fictional story of a rescue mission in war-torn Africa, and I’m sure that I should, too. But I just can’t forget this movie. Tears of the Sun was the first modern war flick I watched, and lo, my respect for Navy SEALs was born. Sensitive viewers, watch out, because it’s got traumatizing material (the worst involving women and children), but heartier folk should embrace it. Of all the many cinematic battles I’ve seen, the last stand in Tears of the Sun is still one of my favorites.
A couple thoughts about the message. The film could be taken as a glibly optimistic portrayal of US involvement in foreign wars—and as such would be a bit too convenient and simplistic in an age where we actually need to do some hard thinking about exactly what our job is beyond our own borders. But Tears of the Sun doesn’t push its message on a national scale. Instead of suggesting that we use the story to build US foreign policy, it simply illustrates that when you’re on the ground with dozens of helpless civilians trapped between jungle and murdering terrorists, it is not your political or patriotic but your Samaritan duty to save the poor and needy.
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016)
Directed by Michael Bay. Starring John Krasinski, James Badge Dale, Pablo Schreiber, Max Martini.
Synopsis: As an American ambassador is killed during an attack at a U.S. compound in Libya, a security team struggles to make sense out of the chaos.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: There’s a brawny, stubborn, cynical bouncer in my brain that doesn’t let Michael Bay through. Almost ever. (The Island squeaked by and I let it stay.) You don’t need to see all of Pearl Harbor to know that it’s lame sauce and you need only the trailers for Transformers to think ew, who pays to have their brain stunted for two hours?
Even worse, I thought it was way too soon to know the truth of Benghazi. All I gleaned from the news were reports at war with each other and I hardly thought Hillary was the only liar, plus I wasn’t aware of any survivors who could actually assemble the pieces into a cohesive story which meant Michael Bay would be stitching together glamorized truth and ridiculous fiction into a mortifying flag to wave around and embarrass patriots who don’t need fantasy to love their country.
Then the reviews came in. Universally bad. Entertainment Weekly roundly scoffed the film—essentially labeling it bad art of caveman intelligence and cornball hero-worship—and I’m ashamed to say I listened. Coming from total God-haters as it did, EW’s critique matched my suspicions and the know-it-all bouncer in my brain crossed his arms and said TRY ME. No more research required. I loudly avoided the movie.
What changed my mind was discovering that 13 Hours was no mere speculation, but came straight from the mouths of three soldiers who had been there. They saw. They heard. They fought. Then they listened to the lies that spat on the graves of their fallen brothers and they had enough, so they co-authored a book with Mitchell Zuckoff. And now Michael Bay, a staunch conservative (which I should have guessed after The Island) was telling the whole world—and making Hillary out to be a colossal liar. Perfect timing: election season. I decided to give it a go. Brash, obnoxious, unintelligent, shallow? As long as the movie told the truth, I was game.
All my negative expectations withered. Instantly. From the opening seconds, I was surprised at the film’s near relentless finesse, comparatively speaking. (The only break is one over-hyped scene near the beginning as two former Navy SEALs escape a road block with comedic dramatics.) While Michael Bay is still hardly the next Kathryn Bigelow, he doesn’t need to be. Does the movie break new ground? No. Not in the art of filmmaking. But in the art of truthtelling? Yes. Simply stating the truth is an increasingly revolutionary act, and 13 Hours tells it fast and hard, galvanized by the fact that Americans have been lied to for going on four years now and all it needs to do, its sole mission, is set the record straight and honor the men who did what was right in the midst of spectacular failure from the powers on high.
Other wins: Characters are true to their real-life counterparts. The dialogue is probably the best recreation of military bro-style repartee I’ve ever heard. All acting is spot on; Liev Schreiber is particularly convincing as the motor-mouth Tanto and as for John Krasinski, I’ve never watched The Office so thankfully I wasn’t distracted by the weirdness of watching “Jim” kick butt and take names. And the action, besides being incredibly intense, lines up with the book minute-for-minute almost without fail. The only significant shift I detected was swapping out one soldier for another during one particular conversation in order to focus more on the top-billed actors. I’d prefer 100% accuracy, but apart from that scene, that’s what I got.
13 Hours forges do-or-die patriots on the spot. Thanks to a family spangled by war veterans, I am rather easily stirred by military movies, but this one—against all odds—turned me into a live conduit for duty, honor, country pretty much like no other. By the time I walked out of the theater, I was vibrating. Watch and see. If you weren’t before, you will find yourself an artery for the beating heart of God-fearing America (the small, badly battered core that is left to us) through which nothing but gratitude and the desire to lay down your life for what’s right pumps and pumps hard.
Most Americans will never be elected to such crucibles as Benghazi on September 11, 2012, but today, Memorial Day, the single greatest act of loyalty to your country just might be watching the story of those that were.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Tom Hanks, Matt Damon, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Giovanni Ribisi.
Synopsis: Following the Normandy Landings, a group of US soldiers go behind enemy lines to retrieve a paratrooper whose brothers have been killed in action.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: This is a colossal “war is hell” eye-opener and the father of today’s hyper-realistic war films. Everybody knows the first 20 minutes are worth it, but the whole story is a galvanizer, even if I could wish that Spielberg would learn to salute without getting so weepy. The bookend scenes in the cemetery are just a bit overwrought.
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Directed by Randall Wallace. Starring Mel Gibson, Madeleine Stowe, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott, Chris Klein, Barry Pepper.
Synopsis: In a place soon to be known as The Valley of Death, in a football field-sized clearing called landing zone X-Ray, Lt. Colonel Hal Moore and 400 young troopers from the elite newly formed American 7th “Air” Cavalry, were surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese soldiers dug into the tunnel warren mountainside. The ensuing battle was one of the most savage in US history and is portrayed here as the signal encounter between the American and North Vietnamese armies.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: Only a miniseries would do the book full justice, but We Were Soldiers is still one of my favorite movies. I often hear people trying to compare it with Black Hawk Down (since they were both mega-budget productions, both true stories, and released only 14 months apart), but the fact is, they’re just very different films. Black Hawk Down focuses on a single mission—and focuses even more on that mission than on the men of that mission. We Were Soldiers is more personal. It isn’t simply about soldiers, it’s about soldiers as husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons—as well as their broken families left behind to fight a very different war on the home front.
Black Hawk Down (2001)
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Jason Isaacs, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore.
Synopsis: 123 elite US soldiers drop into Somalia to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord and find themselves in a desperate battle with a large force of heavily-armed Somalis.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: My grandfather knows war. He’s fought three of them: WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He’s flown through death, dodged its bullets, and dropped the end of the world on men buried deep in the jungle. He’s bailed out, he’s been shot at, and almost shot down. Ask him about his missions and he’ll tell you. He’ll remember every detail. When Black Hawk Down was released, he called my mom and said: “Don’t watch it. It’s way too real.”
My grandfather would know.
Black Hawk Down is magnificent not only because it’s a terrific production on all counts, but because it’s the true story of good soldiers who stick to their training and to each other in the middle of a horrific snafu. It’s one thing to watch Saving Private Ryan where the men blown to pieces on the beach actually gain that beach. It’s one thing to watch We Were Soldiers where the Americans, with all their casualties, do win the battle. It’s completely different to see a force of 160 men get decimated—caught between an evil warlord with no rules of engagement, and their own commander-in-chief who neutered his troops and sent them into battle with all the worst rules of engagement. (When his son posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his danger-be-damned attempt to rescue Mike Durant, Herbert Shughart refused to shake President Clinton’s hand. “You are not fit to be president of the United States,” said Shughart. “The blame for my son’s death rests with the White House and with you. You are not fit to command.”)
I’ve heard it said by many veterans that no matter how much you might sign up to fight for your country, when the bullets start flying, it’s just you and the buddy next to you. You fight for each other. And nowhere have I seen this more true than in Black Hawk Down. What starts as a simple mission to get the bad guy derails into a sheer fight to survive and get out. In this case, heroism isn’t taking over German tanks or wiping out the Vietcong, it’s simply picking up the pieces of your own team. The only thing that matters now is leaving no man behind.
My grandmother told Granddad that he owed her ten chick flicks after she sat through this. I would say, if that’s what it takes. Whatever it takes, watch it. If you don’t have any idea what the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 was all about, if you don’t have any anger over the way America has been limp-wristing her way through most of her wars for the past fifty years, if you feel no need to shake the veteran’s hand when you see him in the grocery story, then watch Black Hawk Down. Watch it because it’s way too real.
Band of Brothers (2001)
Starring Damian Lewis, Scott Grimes, Ron Livingston, Donnie Wahlberg, Neil McDonough.
Synopsis: The story of Easy Company of the US Army 101st Airborne division and their mission in WWII Europe from Operation Overlord through V-J Day.
Why it’s good for Memorial Day: Band of Brothers is king of them all—a massively ambitious, hugely triumphant saga and one of the few movies that is actually as good as the book. I’ve seen the opening credits alone bring people to tears. In a day when the heroes of World War II are dying, along with the freedoms they bled for, this story shall the good man teach his son.
We few. We happy few.
Synopses courtesy of IMDB.