clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Films of the Forever War

‘Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’ is Hollywood’s latest attempt to dramatize our wars in Iraq and beyond. But can you make a great war film about a war that never seems to end?

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Welcome to Future of Movies Week. Too often this year we’ve been left baffled at the multiplex. It’s been 10 months, and we’re struggling to come up with a viable top-10 list. Streaming platforms are encroaching on Hollywood’s share of our collective attention, preexisting intellectual property is providing diminishing returns, and moviegoers largely skipped Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Wild days.

November will be different. It’s packed with interesting releases — Oscar contenders like Loving and Arrival and Manchester by the Sea, blockbusters from Marvel (Doctor Strange) and J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a Disney movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Rock (Moana), and old-fashioned fare from big-name directors like Robert Zemeckis (Allied) and Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply).

This week, we’re looking at the future — of film school, horror, the Marvel Universe, movie stars, and the medium itself.

In Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a company of American soldiers is feted onstage at an NFL halftime show, the culmination of a two-week “Victory Tour” sponsored by the Bush administration to put a happy face on the country’s misadventures in Iraq. Think W’s “Mission Accomplished” photo-op, but with the aircraft carrier swapped out for the Cowboys’ stadium.

The grunts-on-the-gridiron set-up gives Fountain the chance to critique the complicity between the NFL and the U.S. military. At one point, the eponymous hero imagines them waging a joint campaign: “Attack with all our Bears and Raiders,” he thinks, “our ferocious Redskins, our Jets, Eagles, Falcons, Chiefs, Patriots, Cowboys … submit, lest our awesome NFL show you straight to the flaming gates of Hell!”

In Ang Lee’s film version, which opens on November 11, AT&T Stadium has been replaced by a generic Texas mega-dome. The absence of authentic logos and uniforms clashes with Lee’s much-publicized commitment to realism; when Billy Lynn debuted in October at the New York Film Festival, much of the coverage centered on the director’s decision to shoot the film in 3-D at 120 frames per second in 4K resolution — making it the first major studio feature to attempt such a fleet, fine-tuned aesthetic. Lee said he was inspired by the “immersive” aspect of Fountain’s novel. Critics were skeptical about the prospects of Lee’s high-res experiment once it hit multiplexes, however. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk looks fantastic,” began a Slate headline, before concluding, “It’s also unwatchable.”

It’s possible that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will transcend its initial technological controversy, but regardless of Lee’s double-Oscar-winning pedigree — or the bona fides of his cast, which includes Steve Martin, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, and Chris Tucker alongside the unheralded Joe Alwyn in the title role — movies about U.S. wars in Iraq and beyond have rarely done solid box office, even if they have big names attached. And, with very few exceptions, they haven’t endured in the popular imagination, either. In 2013, Salon’s Daniel D’Addario examined this phenomenon, quoting the venerable film critic and scholar David Thomson on why a decade-long run of movies reflecting an unpopular foreign war almost completely failed to connect with the public imagination: “In general, I don’t think audiences like war films about wars that are still going on.”

This certainly was the case for the cinema of the Vietnam War. A group of popular, acclaimed, studio-produced classics about the Vietnam War began being released in 1978 with Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, which both feature characters coping with physical and psychic wounds from their time in Southeast Asia. The Deer Hunter’s protagonist, Mike Vronsky (Robert De Niro), is haunted by memories of combat and imprisonment; in Coming Home, paraplegic ex-soldier Luke Martin (Jon Voight) proselytizes against the war. The seriously famous films that followed — Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987) — were all made with a similar sense of distance, if not detachment. Regardless of their respective aesthetic strategies — from Coppola’s operatic bombast to Stone’s tragic realism to Kubrick’s horror-film chill — they were all able to take something of a long view.

It’s a good bet that Cimino, Ashby, and the others were influenced by Peter Davis’s Oscar-winning 1974 documentary, Hearts and Minds, which intersperses embittered, regretful testimonies from returned soldiers into its blistering critique of the war’s origins and execution — an assault made all the more vicious by its constant reminders that as of 1973, U.S. involvement in the war was officially “over.”

Throwing all sense of objectivity to the wind, Davis brazenly juxtaposed passages of red-white-and-blue propaganda — including shots of a high school football game, whose players are compared to warriors by their coach — against stark images of violence and suffering. In one of the most shocking moments in all of cinema, he cuts from Army General William Westmoreland opining that “life is cheap in the Orient” to footage of a sobbing mother trying to climb into the grave of her son, a deceased South Vietnamese soldier. It’s a stunning, loaded, unforgettable moment, and depending on how you look at it, either a bold revision or staggering violation of documentary ethics: no doubt that Michael Moore, who has said that Hearts and Minds is one of his favorite films, was taking notes.

Easily the most commercially successful film about the Iraq War — as well as the highest-grossing documentary of all time — Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) updated Davis’s approach, with Nixon swapped out for Bush II. But where Davis’s film was shot and edited in the aftermath of Vietnam, Moore released his movie while American troops were still on the ground and Bush was still in office — the director’s stated goal was to help get Dubya evicted from the White House. The film’s popularity stemmed from precisely this partisan approach. In a moment when Americans were bitterly divided on whether or not soldiers should be in Iraq, Moore’s film offered a bit of fire-and-brimstone preaching to one of the choirs. And in the end, the hearts and minds he won belonged to Cannes jury members.

That Fahrenheit 9/11 was basically a redux of Hearts and Minds could be taken as a sign of the earlier film’s durability, but it also points to something about many Iraq War movies — that they often take blatant inspiration from the Vietnam films that preceded them. Sometimes, this familiarity takes the form of clever parody, as in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead (2005), which, although technically set during the first Gulf War in 1991, was calibrated to reflect a post-9/11 zeitgeist; in one scene, a group of Marines sing enthusiastically along to the “Ride of the Valkyries” scene in Apocalypse Now — one of the keynote musical sequences of the 1970s transformed into an ironic golden oldie. But elsewhere in the film, Mendes didn’t seem to be commenting on the iconic qualities of Full Metal Jacket so much as copying them right down to the film’s bifurcated narrative structure, and with diminishing returns — the big-budget film did poorly at the box office.

By 2007, lackluster box office showings by films about U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan became a topic of media scrutiny: That year, no fewer than three such high-profile titles by brand-name directors — Brian De Palma’s Redacted, Robert Redford’s Lions for Lambs, and Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah — had belly-flopped in wide release. Of these, Redacted holds up the best, as De Palma (like Moore) takes the opportunity to essentially remake an earlier movie about Vietnam: His own 1989 drama, Casualties of War.

Like Casualties of War, Redacted is based on a true story: In 2006, several American soldiers stationed near Mahmoudiya, Iraq, raped and murdered a 14-year girl and killed members of her family — an atrocity initially blamed on Sunni insurgents.

Casualties’ nightmarishly lyrical style — all tracking shots and balletic long takes — is replaced with a gritty, multimedia aesthetic derived from LiveJournal and YouTube; the idea was to provide a splintered perspective on a war that was still going on. The style was quite brilliant, but Redacted’s literal and figurative ugliness — as well as a pitched legal battle between De Palma and his own producers — kept it under the radar, and nearly a decade later it’s one of the filmmaker’s least seen (and most underrated) works.

In the Valley of Elah, meanwhile, was as high-profile as it got in 2007, arriving in theaters in the middle of Oscar season behind advertisements proclaiming that it was “from the director of Crash” (this was meant as an enticement). Inspired by journalist Mark Boal’s 2004 Playboy article “Death and Dishonor” — about the mysterious murder of American soldier Richard T. Davis — the film cast Tommy Lee Jones as a retired military police officer searching for his AWOL son after the latter returns home from duty in Iraq. The story of a weathered, greatest-generation patriot having his eyes opened by proxy to the horrors of modern warfare (and the traumas that come afterward) had plenty of resonance in a period when gory details kept emerging about what was being done to — and by — the country’s enlisted men, but despite a fine performance by Jones (who played a spiritually similar role the same year in the inestimably superior No Country for Old Men), the film’s antiwar commentary was stolid and obvious, culminating in a final shot that was so hopelessly on the nose that it was the rhetorical equivalent of a deviated septum.

If the very public critical and commercial failure of In the Valley of Elah was the nadir of the Iraq War movie cycle, then The Hurt Locker, the next film featuring a writing credit by Mark Boal — this time in the form of an original screenplay — would become its biggest (although isolated) success.

Boal based his account of explosive ordnance disposal specialists on his time spent as an embedded reporter in Iraq, and tried to focus on the minute-by-minute minutiae of their experiences on the ground — an approach far removed from both the big-picture grandstanding of Moore and Haggis and the sardonic critique of De Palma. Fascinatingly, the response to The Hurt Locker — directed with trip-wire tension by Kathryn Bigelow — was split between film critics who almost unfailingly gave it the praise they’d denied previous treatments of the topic and veterans who ridiculed its painstaking attempts at authenticity. “I was amazed,” wrote the author of the military-themed blog Bouhammer, “that a movie so bad could get any kind of accolades from anyone.”

The Hurt Locker ended up winning six Academy Awards in 2010, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was The Deer Hunter for a new age — a study of post-traumatic stress and the psychology of fighting men. But similar to how Cimino’s film was pilloried for its racism, The Hurt Locker came under fire from those who found its politics not antiwar enough. Because its protagonist William James (Jeremy Renner) is a compulsive adrenaline junkie, his desire to keep returning to the field despite innumerable close calls is examined by Bigelow through the lens of masculinity rather than patriotism; because the filmmakers wanted to keep their narrative limited to a boots-on-the-ground perspective, the soldiers never get around to talking about whether they believe in their mission or its ultimate upshot.

The question of whether The Hurt Locker was even-handed or evasive followed Boal and Bigelow through 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was not technically an Iraq War film, since it was set largely in Pakistan. Its epic-length dramatization of the lead-up to and execution of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden was criticized for being everything from Obama administration propaganda (its release was originally scheduled close to Election Day) to an apologia for the CIA’s enhanced-interrogation tactics (a charge levied by everybody from Senator John McCain to Glenn Greenwald) to a violation of national security (there was a suggestion that the filmmakers had been given access to classified documents in reconstructing the narrative).

Interestingly, the film did better commercially than The Hurt Locker, possibly because of the earlier film’s Oscar glory, and possibly because it offered the cathartic experience of watching 9/11’s most notorious architect being killed off onscreen — although the stark, clinical staging of the raid, and the complete lack of any sense of triumph suggested that Bigelow was more interested in interrogating America’s urge for vengeance than simply slaking it.

One way to look at Zero Dark Thirty is to see the film’s driven intelligence agent heroine, Maya, as a stand-in for the filmmaker — just as Bigelow has thrived in the muscle-headed environs of the modern action film, so, too, does Jessica Chastain’s character hold her own against male colleagues and superiors. Another angle is to see Maya as an analogue for then–secretary of state Hillary Clinton, whose role in Bin Laden’s death has been used by the left to shore up her cred with hawkish Democrats and by the right as something to juxtapose with her culpability in the September 11, 2012, attack on an American diplomatic compound in Libya.

Released early this year to modest box office returns, Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi has a barely suppressed “Lock her up” subtext that has become a hallmark of Donald Trump’s general election stump speech. But it was barely a commercial blip compared to Clint Eastwood’s astonishingly successful American Sniper (2014), which was perhaps the most difficult Iraq War film to parse from an ideological point of view. Does it present the late marksman Chris Kyle — played by an alternately soulful and terrifyingly impassive Bradley Cooper — as a stoic hero or a dead-eyed killer? Is it pro- or anti-war? Is it possible to appreciate Eastwood’s artistry in between his ranting to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention and warning members of the “pussy generation” to get off his lawn?

Whether or not it’s possible to definitively answer these or other questions (at least the mystery of the fake baby has been pretty thoroughly solved), Sniper’s commercial success — it has the highest domestic gross for any war film, making more money in the United States ($350 million) than most of the other movies mentioned above put together — makes it an outlier. If American Sniper is ultimately an homage to the battered psyches of homecoming soldiers, à la The Deer Hunter, it doesn’t let that subtext overwhelm its effectiveness and excitement as a combat film — hence its large audience.

Thomson’s point still stands. Americans are on the whole more willing to watch movies about wars after they’re over, perhaps because it’s more palatable (or edifying) to try to understand them as history than to process their implications in the present tense. And in the case of Iraq, the fact is that the rhetorical target kept moving, driven by a 24-hour news cycle that didn’t exist during Vietnam. In a moment when both presidential candidates have made disavowing support for the invasion a thick (if wobbly) plank of their respective campaigns, Eastwood’s decision to submerge partisan leanings was prescient.

It’ll be fascinating to see if Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk will build on American Sniper’s success, or else be met with indifference like so many of its similarly themed predecessors. Or it may be that a big, loud, anxious epic about American life and war as spectacle is the last thing that anybody will want to watch on the weekend after Election Day.