War Movies, What Are They Good For?

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There’s been a lot of griping about how movies based on our current wars have been mediocre at best. Vietnam cranked out the murderers row of Platoon, Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, and Born on the Fourth of July. Iraq brought us trash like Jarhead, In the Valley of Elah, and Stoploss. There are two reasons for this. One is enough time passed between the war ending and the movies coming out , so the filmmakers knew why we were in Vietnam. Which is, of course, to do drugs and sleep with prostitutes. The new crop of war movies can’t even figure out what the soundtrack to the Middle East should be whereas whenever I hear the Doors or CCR I get flashbacks to Nam.

Second is we had the semi-egalitarianism of the draft so an educated writer like Oliver Stone could find himself in combat and return with stories to tell. Now the military is voluntary which means it’s only made up of people with no other options. I know life is the best schooling, but without the indoctrination of an education your first instinct after a traumatic experience isn’t to write about it.

So  a movie like The Hurt Locker might be we’re the best we’re going to do with the war in Iraq. Like the disappointing miniseries, Generation Kill, the script was written by a journalist who spent time following the troops in Iraq. Mark Boal  shadowed bomb squads and recreated their intense experiences. But it’s more journalistic then cinematic. You get a strong feel for the migraine inducing tension you’d feel in combat, but the characters are cyphers. Part of it might be because actors you’ve never heard of play the main parts. This gives it a bizarre documentary feel except when stars like Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, and Kate from Lost have tiny cameos. It isn’t until the end of the flick that you realize who the main character is or the moral of his story.

But then it comes together and you realize Boal came up with a decent hypothesis for what this war is all about and how anyone could enlist for such a meaningless war. It’s a chance for soldiers to live out their first person shooter video game fantasies.

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