We usually try to tie our weekly series Five Great Movies to one of the week’s newest releases, or at least a recent news story, but this week we got nothin’. Chimpanzee movies? Steve Harvey films? Shrugs abounded throughout the office, but when we thought about the Nicholas Sparks melodrama The Lucky One we remembered that it’s about a soldier returning home from the war. War movies? Somehow we haven’t done that before.
But not just any war movies: modern warfare movies. Thanks to the 24 hour news cycle and the surge of internet journalism, the most recent military conflicts are more heavily scrutinized than ever, and as such audiences seem less interested in war movies than ever before, since they're constantly deluged with footage already. It doesn’t help that Americans are divided on the subject, leading to preachy movies that attempt to reach half of the country while leaving the other half out to dry. There have only been a handful of modern warfare movies that navigated those tricky waters to achieve genuine greatness, but here are five great ones. Not necessarily the best, but damned good and worth your time. (For the sake of narrowing it down, we've limited our picks to films related to wars and military conflicts post-1990, in case you were wondering.)
Did we leave out your favorites? Do you have a suggestion for a future installment of Five Great Movies? That’s that the comments are for.
Courage Under Fire (dir. Ed Zwick, 1996)
Ed Zwick is best known for his big historical epics, usually ones about foreign cultures and minorities starring an inexplicably white protagonist (Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond), but he bucked that trend in 1996 with Courage Under Fire, an excellent Gulf War film starring Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan. Washington plays a troubled Lieutenant Colonel assigned to determine if Army Captain Karen Emma Walden (Ryan) should be the first female to earn the Medal of Honor for combat. Unfortunately, the award would have to be posthumous. As he interrogates her fellow soldiers about the battle which cost Walden her life, he finds major inconsistencies in their stories, and suspects they’re hiding something. Though not as meaningful as it thinks it is, Courage Under Fire’s Rashomon-style storytelling is potent, and the performances – from Meg Ryan, Lou Diamond Phillips and a young Matt Damon in particular – are first rate.
Three Kings (dir. David O. Russell, 1999)
The year was 1999, and despite the ample passage of time, there still hadn’t been a classic movie about the Gulf War (Courage Under Fire notwithstanding). We were too cynical for hero-worship sagas, and too well informed for an exposé. Then independent comedy director David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster) came along and rocked the joint with Three Kings. This exciting, hilarious and genuinely intelligent war film tells the story of four soldiers (George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube and director Spike Jonze) who go AWOL towards the end of the conflict in search of gold bullion stolen from Kuwait. Along the way, their interactions with the Iraqis – including an iconic and unexpected torture sequence – force them to reevaluate their priorities, ultimately leading them to a powerful act of selflessness. It only sounds like Oscar bait. Russell’s film is cynical, critical of U.S. policy, treats the violence with deadly seriousness, and it’s somehow funny as hell.
Black Hawk Down (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001)
Most war movies, even great ones, use their war of choice as a metaphor of some kind. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down doesn’t even need to try. A harrowing, action-packed account of a deadly raid on Mogadishu, the film starts as just another day at the office for the soldiers involved, but when the civilians are more heavily armed than expected, and a Black Hawk helicopter goes down amidst the firefight, the Battle of Mogadishu begins and it’s non-stop thrills from then on out. You could talk about the greater relevance of America’s presence in Somalia, but it wouldn’t matter to the enormous ensemble cast of Black Hawk Down. Once the bullets start flying and the bodies stop dropping, all the politics in the world fall to the side in favor of keeping your people alive. Black Hawk Down’s impeccable direction and editing keep even the most complex action sequence easy to follow, giving us one of the most powerful and exciting action movies yet produced.
Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008)
Not every war movie needs to feel like a trip through hell. Jon Favreau’s justifiably acclaimed adaptation of the Marvel comic book series Iron Man is actually pretty damned fun. Iron Man revised its hero’s origins to reflect modern times (based largely on the retcon from Warren Ellis and Adi Granov’s “Extremis” mini-series), creating a worthy and entertaining parable in the process. Billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., in a career-redefining performance) is attacked with his own inventions by terrorists in the Middle East and forced to make deadlier weaponry while they hold him captive. As the cocky celebrity comes face-to-face with the violent horrors his creations have caused, he vows to use every tool at his disposal to put a stop to it. Those tools create a suit of armor powerful enough to take down entire terrorist cells, and ultimately the traitor who has been selling weapons to the enemy to prolong the war and maximize his profits. Iron Man surprised audiences by turning a less-than-well known character into an iconic screen spectacle, with a cocksure hero unlike the psychologically conflicted Spider- and Batmen that preceded him. It's classic superhero movie and an unexpectedly strong war story too.
The Hurt Locker (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
Not all of us were blown away by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, a character-driven suspense story about a bomb disposal team in the Iraq War, but it’s still a great film. The Hurt Locker stars a previously unknown Jeremy Renner as a dangerously unorthodox explosives expert who seems addicted to risk. But is that such a bad thing if he’s good at his job? Renner is dynamite in the lead role, and Bigelow directs the film around a series of suspense pieces based around the oldest cinematic convention in the book: will the bomb go off? The Hurt Locker shoots for deeper meaning late in the film, and we’re not sure we buy those parts, but we have to admit that this is one the finest depictions of the Iraq War from the ground level thus far, and watching it is like staring at a powder keg sitting next to a grease fire.
That's it for this week. Come back next Wednesday for more Five Great Movies!