What Should a War Movie Do?

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“I’m anti-war, but
I’m pro-the people forced to engage with it,” director Kathryn Bigelow told Time magazine in 2013 about The Hurt Locker and its follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatic recreation
of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This formulation—paired with the cliché
“there’s no politics in the trenches,” which Bigelow cites in other interviews—would

prove to be the rule, not the exception, for war films of the early
twenty-first century. Hate the sin but not the sinner; support the troops, on
screen and off.   

The war films of
the 1970s and 1980s—headlined by classics like Apocalypse Now and Full
Metal Jacket
—were critical riffs on the arrogance and madness of the
solitary American hero. They were themselves reactions against the type of
violent, solitary, self-assured gunslingers who’d ruled the range in Hollywood
Westerns for decades. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the
character Joker reverts to an impression of John Wayne when he wishes to mock
the jingoism and futility of the American war effort. Wayne was a well-known
supporter of the war in Vietnam, and his 1968 film The Green Berets was widely panned
for what the critic Roger Ebert called its clichéd attempt to depict Vietnam “in
terms of cowboys and Indians”—proof to Kubrick and many others of just how out
of touch the men of Wayne’s generation and mindset were with the realities of
Vietnam. (Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his recent book Nothing
Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
, and other writers have
accurately pointed out that even the most acclaimed films of the era were out
of touch with the Vietnamese reality of the war.)

Meanwhile, M*A*S*H (1970)—a Vietnam-era film that
took place during the Korean War—featured comic anti-heroes like Hawkeye and
Trapper John, iconoclastic surgeons who were engaged with the price of
violence, rather than its benefits. In the film’s closing frames, their friend Duke
imagines returning home to civilian life and nearly bolts from the operating
theater. These heroes would rather hang out with their pals than fight. The
same could be said for the small town, blue-collar protagonists in The Deer Hunter who deploy to Vietnam. The
brotherhood of soldiers had also been a powerful trope in earlier WWII war
films like The Great Escape (1963). But
in Vietnam-era films, the protagonists in The
Deer Hunter
are friends before
they ever go to war; in Oliver Stone’s Platoon
(1986), a group of soldiers is riven by personal and political conflicts. Brotherhood
isn’t forged by combat; instead, it’s destroyed by war.

By the 1990s, the
cultural consensus represented by the Vietnam-era movies began to shift. For
those who’d never liked these films’ skeptical critique of military power, the
1991 Persian Gulf War offered a chance to revise the story. In his 1993 book, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian
Gulf War
, Rick Atkinson claimed that the war revealed “the resurgent vigor
of the American military after a generation of convalescence.” One year later, Robert
Zemeckis’s blockbuster Forrest Gump became
one of the first successful movies since The
Green Berets
to view the Vietnam War through a positive, aspirational lens.
The character of Forrest is the apotheosis of traditional, martial values—values
which remain unquestioned, even as the world begins to shatter around him. “Don’t
ever let anybody tell you they’re better than you, Forrest,” his mother instructs
him not long after he learns he was named after his ancestor, a Confederate general
and member of the Ku Klux Klan. “Did you hear what I said, Forrest? You’re the
same as everybody else.” It’s an odd thing to say to a young, well-off Southern
white boy in the 1950s, but that’s the point: Forrest is the same as everybody
else, so long as he doesn’t ask the questions asked by previous Vietnam-era
movies, where characters argue over the causes and purpose of the war.
Toward the end of Full Metal Jacket,
for instance, one soldier asserts that a comrade has died for the cause of
freedom. “Flush out your head gear new
guy,” responds Animal Mother. “You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a
slaughter. If I’m going to get my balls blown off for a word, my word is
poontang.” During the Vietnam
sequences at the heart of Forrest Gump,
Forrest quietly does his duty, fighting the enemy, writing letters home to his
unfaithful, war-protesting girlfriend, and he is rewarded, in the end, with the
Medal of Honor. It’s an apolitical, sanitized version of war, a version of the
earnest, idealized GIs who appeared in bestsellers from the same era like Band of Brothers (1992) and Flags
of Our Fathers

Like the Persian
Gulf War, the return to World War II narratives during the 1990s and 2000s
offered war stories cleansed of Vietnam’s political complications. As Hollywood
discovered there was money to be made in promoting “the resurgent vigor of the
American military,” an emphasis on “true stories” began to take hold, a
correction of a cynical narrative with a hopeful one.  

In Randall Wallace’s
2002 revisionist film We Were Soldiers,
based on a 1992 book by Lt. General Harold G. Moore, the director attempted a
similar reinterpretation of Vietnam. Moore claimed in his book, “Hollywood got
it wrong every damned time, whetting twisted political knives on the bones of
our dead brothers”—a reference aimed squarely at films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. One thing We
Were Soldiers
seemed intent on getting right involved its depiction of the “proper”
American family: When President Johnson orders Moore’s cavalry division to
Vietnam, the camera cuts to a tableau of the soldiers’ wives, impeccably dressed
in skirts, patterned blouses, matching sweaters, pearl necklaces, and hair
bands—a sequence I consider to be a deliberate rebuke to the Playboy Bunny concert in
Apocalypse Now. The chaos, violence,
and crazed horniness of the troops in that scene are meant to reflect the
disintegration of the traditional social order back home. But here, as the
soldiers’ wives gather at a table covered with flowers and cookies, the
traditional social order is perfectly in place. “Get out your best dresses,
ladies,” Moore’s wife says, looking anguished. “They’re going to want to

The 1990s and
early 2000s were years of relative wealth and prosperity, warmed by the afterglow
of the “success” of the Gulf War in 1991, and the post-9/11 invasion of
Afghanistan. But as our time in the Middle East ground on against an enemy that
was rootless and stateless, an open-ended war proved to have very real and
catastrophic costs both for American soldiers and for the inhabitants of the
countries we’d invaded
. And yet, rather than examine those costs—personal, economic
and political—war films have continued to take pains to portray our soldiers as
paragons of toughness, capable of shouldering war’s burden, however costly, while
the audience can safely sit back and cheer.

I think back to
the wedding scene in
the Pennsylvania mill town that’s home to the characters in The Deer Hunter—the bride and groom are
carried out of the community hall, cheered on after a long night of dancing. It’s
one of the most sensitive portraits of blue-collar life in American film: It’s
the late 1960s, the protagonists are steel workers, a good American job for
good Americans. And yet, when I watch that scene today, I think, That steel mill has gone under by now. That
world has disappeared and it’s never coming back.
I wonder if this is what separates
the war films of my youth from today’s. In the wake of the great recession,
maybe war seems like an opportunity. Or rather, maybe we, the movie-going
public, need to believe that it is. 

The veterans I
know don’t think of war like this. In 2006, I embedded with a company of combat
engineers in Iraq; for them, blowing up bombs was serious business, not an
opportunity for self-expression. When The
Hurt Locker
came out a few years later, the movie’s John
Wayne-style hero
, a reckless, blowhard bomb defuser named Sergeant James,
amused the soldiers. “You don’t have to be a hero to get rid of an IED,” one of them told me back in 2006, “All you do is put a charge on top, back off, and blow it up.”

But this kind of
hero persisted into the next decade: It was good for the box office and good,
it seemed, for America’s morale. Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper, based on the life of Chris
Kyle, a decorated Navy SEAL who served four tours in the Iraq War, took the
single-man theory of war established by The
Hurt Locker
to a bombastic level. The casts of Peter Berg’s The Lone Survivor (2013) and Michael
Bay’s recent 13 Hours: The Secret
Soldiers of Benghazi
—both directors have made a career out of these kinds
of tough-guy “true story” films—are composed of nearly interchangeable great
men of war: bearded, gruff, devoted husbands who call their wives with an
impressive regularity
. Chris Kyle’s death at the hands of another veteran
makes his personal life a touchy subject, but in private, you’ll find very few
veterans, at least among the ones I have talked to, who express much fondness
for the self-serving way American Sniper
emphasizes Kyle’s personal awesomeness. “Doesn’t anybody know how arrogant that
guy was?” one asked me recently, after a few beers.

 War movies may or may not be valuable for
veterans—having experienced war, no movie is likely to shape their opinion about
what it means—but they’re clearly valuable for us, the civilians who send
soldiers to war but don’t bear the cost of the fight. They also establish the
meaning of the war for the next generation. That’s why I hoped that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk might
signal a return to the complex, skeptical films of the 1970s and 1980s.
Fountain’s novel saw how corporate America’s embrace of veterans—symbolized by
the NFL’s eagerness to associate itself with the “brand” of the American
soldier—was more selfish and opportunistic than pro-military. His book pushes
us to consider how we all use our love of veterans to keep the darker
complexities of their experiences, and our complicity, as voters and taxpayers,
in those experiences, at arm’s length.

In places, Ang
Lee’s film follows up on this uncomfortable critique. The halftime show is
genuinely terrifying, and its heavy-handed irony is hard to miss. Billy’s
sister, Kathryn, gives a few speeches that address the politics of the conflict,
including the Bush Administration’s big lie about WMDs, but there are also
troubling elisions. In the book, Staff Sergeant David Dime is defined
affectionately as a “Fuckin’ Liberal,” but his contrarian political views
aren’t emphasized in the movie. This causes Kathryn’s speeches to feel like
exactly what they are—speeches given by an outsider whose advice Billy chooses
not to take. The film also adds a hallucinatory conversation that Billy has
with his dead friend Shroom who cites some shamanistic-sounding philosophy
before suggesting that Billy’s true insight should be that it’s his time to
“step up.” And thus the film’s final message seems to be that Billy should stop
questioning the war, love his brothers, and return to battle.

In Lee’s
adaptation, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime
doesn’t feel like a challenge to the aspirational template established
by The Hurt Locker and American Sniper—it feels like a watered-down
repetition. I wasn’t surprised when, reading the press materials, producer
Rhodri Thomas described Billy Lynn’s story as “anti-war but very much
pro-soldier”—a direct recapitulation of Bigelow’s terms. The movie’s occasional
doubts about the wisdom of this formulation aren’t likely to help at the box
office either. Narratives are always more powerful when they have the courage
of their convictions, even if those convictions elide facts that might unsettle
or disturb its audience. Even if they remind me of the same convictions that
make it so easy for civilians like us to start wars in the first place: Don’t
ever let anybody tell you they’re better than you, America. Did you hear what I
said, America? You’re the same as everybody else.

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