Return Of The Red, White, and Blue
The war films of the decade have seen a patriotic compassion for the troops and their role, the kind not typically seen since before Vietnam.
Hollywood and the American military have enjoyed a deep relationship since before World War II. Yet the participation of America in that greatest of global conflicts rapidly forged an even deeper connection. In those days before television, Americans would flock to the theaters to see news reel footage of their boys overseas, to receive reports of the war in audio-visual form. Famous directors traveled to the front lines to shoot footage, film documentary shorts, and capture the action of celluloid. Many returned home and turned these stories into their own original films. Since then, American audiences have long sought to make sense of our nation's armed conflicts on the big screen. As is said in Oliver Stone's JFK, "the organizing principle for any society is for war." Since most of us will never see the battlefront, we need stories to understand what happens, and every era of film have reflected back to us the national mood when it comes to our role in a world of conflict. The 2010's have been no different and have been an interesting return to a kind of jingoistic patriotism not seen since the days before Vietnam.
Many of the biggest war films of the last 40 years–Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Deer Hunter–are somber meditations on the insanity of war and the loss of innocence. The movies that seemed more explicitly pro-war–Rambo and the Chuck Norris flicks that ensued–rested firmly in the area of exploitation. They presented alternative fantasies where America could have probably won in Vietnam if they didn't wimp out. The 1990's brought a scattershot era of prestige historical fantasies, feel-good portraits of heroes in action, and valiant tributes to the heroes of WWII–from the Mel Gibson vanity project of Braveheart, to the Gulf War drama of Courage Under Fire, to Spielberg re-imagining John Ford with Saving Private Ryan. Perhaps it was because America had not been engaged in a considerable combat war for more than 20 years at that point. With the end of the Cold War, a booming economy and a Democratic president to boot, there was no major foreign threat on our minds, and it was looking almost like it might stay that way.
September 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq clearly changed all that. Within three short years, we were engaged in a whole new theater of warfare, and a new generation had its defining conflict. Interestingly, the movies were slow to join in the fight. Perhaps out of fear of choosing a side in a country so divided over the invasion of Iraq, and sensitive to what could be insensitive Islamophobic portraits of an elusive enemy, Hollywood didn't really know what to do with itself. The decade did manage to get a classic in, perhaps the first true great film about the Iraq war, Kathryn Bigelow's 2009 The Hurt Locker, which portrayed American military service in Baghdad as a new frontier for the American working class. It helps if you're a major adrenaline junkie with some avoidance issues.
Then in 2010, the first major backlash to Obama occurred in the midterm elections and the rise of the tea party. Death panels, Fox News, birtherism–it all began to get pretty ugly. Is it an accident that we started to see a renewal of the American war film?
Around the time of Obama's re-election in 2012, we had two big films that celebrated major accomplishments of his first time–the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, in Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln. Directed respectively by Kathryn Bigelow and Steven Spielberg, they are masterful auteurist works by first rate directors, who sought to contextualize historical events of the past and present within the terms of contemporary politics. Each has a strong liberal bent. Zero Dark Thirty questions the purpose of a dead-eyed revenge mission, asking whether or not it was worth the cost; a portrait of a world thrown into turmoil just to catch the mind who ordered the 9/11 attacks. Bigelow frames it as a procedural, taking after films like All The President's Men or Zodiac, sidestepping political commentary by dryly following the professionals doing their jobs, just like in The Hurt Locker. Yet, as the film ends with a Bin Laden corpse on a table, and a teary eyed Jessica Chastain seeming not relieved, but simply tired, the film questions the point of it all while also feeding the bloodlust.
Lincoln is a top late-career film from Spielberg, who is once again in John Ford mode 15 years after Saving Private Ryan. In showing just how hard it is to get anything progressive passed through the House and Senate, Tony Kushner's screenplay can't help but reflect on the miracle that was the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), no matter how butchered the final version may have ended up being. Obama compared to Lincoln more than about any other president, and this was Spielberg's way to comment on his current moment in history while waiting for it to actually land in the history books.
Obama's second term saw the continued rise of the Tea Party, mass shootings, the weaponization of conspiracy theories and fake news, and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Perhaps Americans were hungry for a return to a time of feeling "proud" of their country. Perhaps they wanted to…make…America…no, scratch that. Either way, Hollywood was picking up on a few things, and with the likes of tough guy action directors new and old like Peter Berg, Michael Bay, David Ayer, Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood, saw several new entries in the pantheon of war films make their mark.
First up was Peter Berg's 2013 film Lone Survivor, one of the all time great spoiler-is-in-the-title examples. Based on a true story (that will be a theme moving forward), it was the first (and weakest) of the Berg-Mark Wahlberg Current Events Trilogy (rounded out with Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, both in 2016). Many compare Spielberg to John Ford, but Berg actually tried to find his own John Wayne in Wahlberg, whose old school machismo is incredibly appealing to conservative man and woman alike (despite never ever trying to cover up his Boston accent, regardless of where his character is supposed to be from). Following a crew of four Navy SEALS on a covert mission to take out some key Al Qaeda guys in Afghanistan, the mission goes FUBAR as they find themselves surrounded and outnumbered, far from help. Much of the film is a monotonous shooting gallery with a cast of anonymous, faceless Taliban and Al Qaeda charging at them from all directions. It feels almost like one of those shooting ranges where you can aim at a picture of Bin Laden if you wish. Lone Survivor was first screened for a number of professional and college football teams to begin a word of mouth campaign, which makes perfect sense when you consider the role that football has played in generating a pro-military culture since 9/11.
Following that was David Ayer's Fury, a Brad Pitt starring WWII tank drama that came out in October of 2014. David Ayer's one and only cinematic obsession is violent men bonding with each other. Fury takes place mostly inside of a tank, a space that will naturally cause some very serious bonding. It's no accident then that this is definitely the best of his directorial efforts. Fury takes all the weepy eyed heroism out of the World War II movie, turning war into a gory horror show where bullets will decapitate you and you find bloody human faces just lying around your quarters. It is also a return to a time when “men were men.” Fury plays out like the first thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan turned into a B movie and stretched out to a feature length. "Ideals are peaceful- history is violent." That sums up the edgy approach to this historical retelling. One can never look at an old war movie where someone gets shot and just kinda falls down without any blood the same way again.
Not long after was perhaps the defining war film of the decade, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. It did what nobody thought it could do- in making over $350 million domestically, it was the highest grossing film released in 2014 (despite doing most of its business after the wide release in January of 2015), the highest grossing war film of all time, and the highest grossing film of Eastwood's career. Not bad for what is ultimately a just-okay biopic of a notoriously problematic real life character, but one who was really really good at killing people. Chris Kyle was killed by a fellow traumatized veteran not much more than one year before the film's release– production on the film was already under way at the time of Kyle’s death. Perhaps the tragedy of the story led people to flock to the theater. Perhaps it was the star power of Bradley Cooper. Nevertheless, American Sniper aligned perfectly with the wave of far right conservatism that was sweeping the nation in Obama's second term. There is also no question that Kyle's pedigree–over 200 proclaimed kills of enemy combatants–must have played a role. He was a hero of a certain kind of American stereotype, unapologetic in the role he played and the purpose he served. The movie itself ends up feeling like the American version of the fake propaganda film from Inglourious Basterds.
Not far behind Eastwood was Michael Bay, the Leonardo Da Vinci of big explosions, with 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi. In taking one of the most politicized tragedies of the decade and turning it into a popcorn action movie released in an election year, Bay showed his entire hand of cards. Surprisingly, it fared far worse at the box office than its Eastwood predecessor, perhaps because the word "Benghazi" causes an automatic repulsive response in half the population, who now associate it with Republican smear campaigns. Despite the obvious politics at play, it is a more than competent ode to the professionalism of the Americans who defended the compound in Libya on that fateful night in 2012. If a motto of modern war films is "when in doubt, support the troops," the motto of this one might be "when in doubt, focus on the high powered weaponry, technical jargon and huge biceps." It may not be Michael Bay's fault that you cannot view this film without hearing the voice of Trey Gowdy or Sean Hannity in your head. Yet most cinephiles and film writers tend to give Michael Bay a pass, because they appreciate his dedication to his singular craft. They did the same thing here, with 13 Hours receiving far better reviews than one may have thought it would. It had its premiere at the stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play, further cementing the connection between sports and the military. It makes perfect sense that one of the most divisive events of the decade would spawn one of its most divisive films.
Released mere days before the election of Donald Trump, Hacksaw Ridge seems to round out the crop of big war movies from the decade. It seems perfect that it was directed by Mel Gibson, another prominent figure from America's past who disappeared for a long time, only to rocket back into the mainstream in the fall of 2016 (he would go on to be nominated for best director at the Academy Awards that year). Hacksaw Ridge is as Mel Gibson a movie as they come, with his pet obsessions of Christian imagery and salvation through bloody, gory violence well intact even after a decade away from the director's chair. Gibson chose to tell the story of a Seventh Day Adventist conscientious objector in World War II, who saved countless lives in the Battle of Okinawa despite refusing to carry or fire a weapon. Anyone can watch Hacksaw Ridge and enjoy it as a throwback to the days when Gibson was at the height of his powers. It feels like a movie that could have been released alongside Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line.
Interestingly, during Trump's presidency, the American war film has mostly dried up. We are fortunate to not be mired in a whole new war...yet. With it being the most toxic and divided political environment since at least the Vietnam War, it doesn't feel surprising that Hollywood would be straying away from too many jingoistic features. Films like 12 Strong and Thank You For Your Service come and go without much fanfare or cultural dialogues. The American left seems to be mostly engaging with and dealing with Trump through escapist metaphors such as Star Wars. You are lucky to be able to pry the conservatives away from Fox News. We are all firmly in our camps. Where once upon a time we might have been able to join each other in the multiplex to watch the newsreels come in, we are looking for entertainment that confirms our worldviews now. With so many choices, it is very easy to do.
Perhaps the best we can hope for, as far as something to unite us all, is the latest Marvel film- Avengers: Endgame. A film where the evil bad guy is somebody who proposes a solution to our problems is to wipe out half of humanity and return us to a state before things got so complicated. It seems like a good idea, but it clearly isn't. It seems a lot like fascism, but that can be easily ignored if you would rather just focus on the strong character work. There appears to be something for everybody in the MCU, a sort of rorschach test for modern day conflict. Judging from its box office performance, everybody saw it. Perhaps Endgame will come to be seen as the defining film of this time in history- but it will depend a whole lot on what happens in the next couple of years.