Salute to Service, Salute to Screen: Top Ten War Movies

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Happy Veterans Day! This girl proudly supports everyone who has and/or is serving in the U.S. Military. It's not an easy thing to do, but for many, it's the right thing to do. To commemorate, I've compiled my Top Ten War Movies, from Spielberg to Bigelow and from sweeping action epics to award-winning portrayals of resilience. Watch one, watch them all, or watch something else (there's easily a dozen war flicks that could've made this list). Thank you for your service, protection, and dedication to our country. I'm proud every day to be an American, and prouder still of the men and women who make up its military.  

How would YOU rank your favorite war movies? Let me know in the comments below! 

10. "American Sniper" (2014)

Chris Kyle, deadliest marksman in U.S. History, with 160 confirmed kills (though he claimed the number is closer to 255), survived four tours in the Iraq War. In 2013, he was killed by a fellow veteran while on a shooting trip meant to facilitate healing from PTSD. “American Sniper” is based on his autobiography, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle alongside Sienna Miller as his tough-minded and unshakable wife, Taya Kyle. The snap second decision that sniper Chris Kyle makes in the opening minutes of the film is brutally suspenseful and also telling— Kyle is assured and comfortable in moments of intense pressure. However, his comfort with brutality doesn’t translate to being home. When he finally returns, Kyle realizes an indefinite struggle thousands of veterans feel everyday; life moves on, but they don’t always move on with it. Neither a wolf, nor a sheep, Chris Kyle’s father instilled in him and his brother that they are “sheepdogs.” But even sheepdogs have sharp teeth, and with every woman and child killed by Kyle, the film gets a little more grim, a little more dangerous. It’s an undeniably compelling and purposeful venture from director Eastwood. “American Sniper” is deadly, both in the sharpshooter’s accuracy with targets, and also in the film’s ability to leave you anguished with the government’s lack of veteran support and one man’s resulting misfortunes.


9. "Zero Dark Thirty" (2013)*

What “Zero Dark Thirty” has to say about torture is not entirely clear. The community had quite a lot to say about Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s 2013 collaboration, a controversial portrayal of the years leading up to the capture and subsequent death of Osama bin Laden. Questions involving Bigelow’s apparently “positive” bias towards the efforts of torture may have resulted in a Best Director snub for herself and an overall wariness to support a film that might be supporting waterboarding. But be careful what you wish for — if truth is what you want, it’s what you’re gonna get, and Bigelow is unafraid of making that dead clear. What “ZDT” isn’t ambiguous about is the hell those operatives went through to take down not just Osama, but an entire terrorist operation.

The sweeping deserts and malnourished conditions of both hostage and host are hard to take in, and the hopeless time frame doesn’t help to alleviate this. Years go by, leads after leads go nowhere, and still those ground operatives fight. Jessica Chastain’s determination is evident not just as a component of headstrong Maya, but as a loud testimony to the importance of “ZDT.” The Best Actress nom carried this film with a grace and strength that would seem implausible in her situation if not for the undeniable fire that brims beneath her lines. “If bin Laden isn't there, you can sneak away and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there. And you're going to kill him for me.” And Navy SEAL Team Six does. When they take down the Abbottabad compound, those final moments are quiet. Simple. It’s this simplicity and exposure that makes “Zero Dark Thirty” such a grating experience. We expect heart-pounding scores and perspiring facial close-ups. What we get is the exhaustion and conviction of the people who could never tell this story for themselves, and one woman’s tireless resolve to finish the job.

*This “ZDT” excerpt originally ran in UCSD’s The Guardian


8. "Full Metal Jacket" (1987)

“This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” Writer/director Stanley Kubrick has a way with telling stories, and 1987’s cult-favorite “Full Metal Jacket” is no exception. It’s a knockout, exceptional piece of cinema, full of ornery men and grouchy punchlines from soldiers with a matter-of-fact outlook on violence— it’s happening, so we might as well win, right? Another take on the Vietnam war, “Full Metal Jacket” doesn’t quite fit in with its fellow Viet film crowd. From the fact that its sets were built (not travelled to) to the way that Kubrick tells its story in parts, “Full Metal Jacket” is your outcast kid brother who’s completely aware of his shortcomings, yet still smokes a full pack of cigarettes regardless. The film revolves around a platoon of U.S. Marines, from training to deployment, amidst foul-mouthed Generals and near-deadly tomfoolery. It’s a badass rendition of a many-times-told tale and a riotous evolution of bootcamp maggots to bred and boiling soldiers.


7. "Fury" (2014)

It’s the “best job” they ever had. And easily the best Shia LaBeouf film we ever saw. “Fury” is all about a team of American tank crews near the end of World War II, entrenched in the deadliest and most violent epicenter of Nazi Germany. Brad Pitt stars as battle-hardened Army Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier, whose main priorities include keeping his team alive and shooting back both big guns and hard liquor. His tank, nicknamed Fury, is armored with a ragtag crew including Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal), Old Man (Jason Isaacs), and rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman). As if the cast weren’t good enough, writer/director David Ayer infused “Fury” with a piping concoction of pointed and memorable dialogue along with a fray of beautifully shot action sequences. Scenes of Wardaddy and his crew chatting, fighting, and blazing in their tried and true tank are magnetic, and LaBeouf’s take on “Bible” Swan renders all his past occurrences pardoned. Although, the best part of “Fury” isn’t the violence, the foul language, or the burning Nazis. It’s a shared meal between Norman, Wardaddy, and two German women; they don’t share the same language, culture, or heritage, but amidst all the suffering, they find solace and comfort in one another. Sure, the two women get blown up by German artillery after they leave, but that’s “Fury”: intense, disordered, and often destructive rage.


6. "The Hurt Locker" (2008)

Another Boal-Bigelow combo finds its way on our Veteran’s Day list, and for good reason. Following the day-to-day life an Army EOD (Explosive Ordinance Demolition) squad deployed to Iraq and tasked with diffusing improvised enemy bombs, “The Hurt Locker” is an expansive look into the mind of a working soldier. Particularly, the minds of new team leader Sergeant James (Jeremy Renner) and his partner Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) as they tackle both life-threatening explosives and real-world dissidence. Visceral, hardening, and gut-wrenching, this film whips you around and sits you back down changed and distressed. Director Kathryn Bigelow (who won Best Director for this film, making her the first women to do so, TO THIS DAY) has created a war drama that relies just as much on the environment and the performances as it does its action sequences... though those are great, too. Screenwriter / journalist Mark Boal, whose previous work included actually writing on site for an Army EOD team, brings unheard of realism and accuracy to the script. Unless you get queasy at the sight of blood (and lemme tell ya, there’s a lot) “The Hurt Locker” is not hard to watch; it’s a truly enjoyable and gripping movie with perfect pacing, character chemistry, heart, and pure excitement. Matching brawn with brains has never looked so appealing.


5. "Apocalypse Now" (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” opens to a line of green palm trees backed by The Door’s haunting single “The End.” For a good 70 seconds, these palm trees stay unmoved and the screen unchanged, save for a passing helicopter and pale yellow smoke. Then, as if ordained by God, red explosions envelop the trees and black smoke fills the screen as Jim Morrison sings, “this is the end / my only friend / the end.” Perhaps the most well-known opening sequence in cinema, “Apocalypse Now” is a prodigious metaphor of trauma, both post and present. Martin Sheen plays Captain Benjamin Willard, who has been assigned to assassinate  United States Army Special Forces Colonel Kurtz (played by a glistening and glowering Marlon Brando); Kurtz has gone insane and has established himself as a demi-god in the farthest reaches of the Congo during the Vietnam war. Though the editing is choppy (also, who goes surfing in war times?), “Apocalypse Now” broke boundaries. Equal parts art-house indie and epic war drama, one thing is guaranteed when discussing “Now”: controversy. Having stimulated conversations on the psychological strifes and meaty substances of war for nearly forty years, “Apocalypse Now” rightfully earns its high spot on our list for being unafraid of making an impact, wanted or not.


4. "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" (2016)

Hillary Clinton is sheathed in opinion. Good, bad, uninformed, factual... you name it, she’s been associated with it. Unfortunately for her (and the families of those killed by her inaction), she’s also associated with Benghazi. In September of 2012, six members of the Annex Security Team (a tactical special ops team associated with the CIA; they’re comrades, soldiers, and all but family) must protect the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya from terrorist assault, albeit without any outside assistance from the Secretary of State. Directed by Michael Bay of the “Transformers” saga, there’s several obvious traits found within “13 Hours”: big explosions, lots of graphic violence, and speedy but frequent sequences of attack. Not as obvious, though, is this film’s ability to shift your perspective from bystanding audience member to wronged citizen of America. You will get angry. You will feel inefficient and pinned down by the weight of unnecessary tragedy. “13 Hours” may be the most accurate depiction of what it’s like when you’re off the grid, off the average citizen’s radar, and off the moral conscious of those who could’ve done something more.  


3. "Saving Private Ryan" (1998)

When asking nearly any American what war movie they would call the “best,” director Steven Spielberg’s rescue mission epic “Saving Private Ryan” usually comes out faster than a horde of wasps chasing down their next 8 year old victim. It’s got grit, honor, and Tom Hanks. “Saving Private Ryan” tells the story of a group of soldiers led by Captain John Miller (Hanks) in World War II who refuse to leave without finding Private James Ryan (Matt Damon), whose three brothers were previously killed in combat. They cross enemy lines and go the distance, with each man having to find it in himself to continue on with a sense of decency and courage. Winning an Oscar for both Best Director and Best Cinematography (cinematographer Janusz Kamiński created a sweeping picture of the war’s brutalities and subsequent destruction), “Saving Private Ryan” won the hearts not just of critics, but of anyone who has a loved one serving and everyone who’s served.


2. "Lone Survivor" (2013)

In 2005, we can easily say the United States, and the world, was still reeling after the 9/11 tragedy. Seven years before the Monday night that Osama bin Laden would be declared dead by the aforementioned SEAL Team Six, there was another courageous team of SEALs, headed by Marcus Luttrell, that would become the picture of what it means to serve. Deployed on a mission to take out Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, Navy SEALs Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), Michael Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew "Axe" Axelson (Ben Foster) become trapped in the Afghanistan bush after an Afghan goat herder (whom the team decides to let live) alerts a band of Taliban militants of their location. Director Peter Berg made sure this film would make its audiences both uncomfortable — with the violence, which doesn’t need to be backed by a strong score to be unnerving, and with the situation, the feeling of hopelessness is at times immeasurable— but also unwaveringly proud of this team (though outnumbered and outgunned, Luttrell and his men stay staunch, humorous, and ever-enduring)  and of this country; our resilience and “never back down” mentality is showcased to the highest caliber with “Lone Survivor”. It will make you raise your American flag high (if you don’t have one, why even read this?), salute to our men, and yell out “fuck ISIS” all in the same measure.


1. "Platoon" (1986)

Taking the top spot is director Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” How could we not? The first film to ever be written and directed by a Vietnam war veteran, “Platoon” took home Oscars for both Best Picture and Best Director. Stone, who at this point had already made a name for himself with the film history classic “Scarface,” forged “Platoon” as the first in a two-picture anti-war creation (the second being “Born on the Fourth of July” with Tom Cruise). It’s a somber look at the realities of war and the middle men/women who get locked in the crosshairs. A young Charlie Sheen plays university student turned soldier Chris Taylor, whose superiors are pitted against each other; one (Staff Sergeant Barnes, play by Tom Berenger), believes the local Viet Congs are hiding enemy military personnel, while the other (a brilliant Willem Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias), has sympathy for the enemy state’s impoverished villagers. It’s a must-see, not just to celebrate our troops, but to be reminded of the moral ambiguities associated with war.


Honorable Mention:

"Inglorious Basterds" (2009)

I would be remiss for not at least mentioning this swash-buckling helluva good time set during World War II. Brad Pitt, playing Nazi hunter Aldo "The Apache" Raine, stars opposite Christoph Waltz as SS Colonel Hans Landa in "Inglorious Basterds." It's a fictional retelling of the events we all really wanted to be true— alternate endings for Nazi German leaders, including Hitler. "Basterds," plain and simple, is good ole' 'Mericans killing bad ole' Nazi scum. Helmed by my favorite director, Quentin Tarantino, this adventure would easily make the Top Ten, if not Top Five in any other list. 


Happy Veterans Day!