War is not glamorous. It’s brutal, chaotic and lurid.
For years and in countless movies, Hollywood has depicted war as heroic, always framing the encounters as good vs. evil. The image of John Wayne charging the enemy is ingrained in the American psyche. There is no question that war movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s instilled in audiences the rightful purposes for which Americans lost their lives.
Recent films, depicting the Vietnam War and conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Afghanistan, have been more nuanced by characterizing the effects of war on both sides of the battlefield and the impact on the civilian population. One concept has held true throughout: brave citizens placing their lives in jeopardy to preserve the values they believe in.
As Memorial Day approaches, we remember their dedication, sacrifices and the lasting impression they left on our country.
If you want to understand the terror of modern warfare, Ridley Scott’s intense drama “Black Hawk Down” (2001) offers a blueprint. Based on the 1999 nonfiction book, by Mark Bowden, the film portrays the harrowing street fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia by a group of U.N. peacekeepers trying to secure the crew of a downed Black Hawk helicopter. The street-to-street and house-to-house engagements are nerve-wracking with danger and death lurking around every corner. Scott’s use of close-quarter fighting and merging paranoia is extremely effective. The film won two Academy awards for Best Editing and Sound. The ensemble cast recalls mid-century war epics: Josh Harnett, Tom Sizemore, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, Sam Shepard, Tom Hardy and Orlando Bloom.
Imagine your day job is to come face-to-face with an Improvised Explosive Device, the sole purpose of which is to maim or kill whomever comes in contact with it. This is the subject of “The Hurt Locker” (2008) which was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture and Director for Kathryn Bigelow (the first woman to win Best Director in Academy history). This edge-of-your-seat thriller is centered on the psychological and emotional stress suffered by an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team as they navigate the Iraqi civilian population, and, more dangerously, themselves. The film stars Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Ralph Fiennes, Guy Pearce and Evangeline Lilly. The Oscar-winning screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a former embedded journalist of an EOD Team in Iraq.
There may be no stranger war movie than Werner Herzog’s 1992 documentary, “Lessons of Darkness.” The movie, less than an hour long, chronicles the Iraqi Army’s retreat from the oil fields of Kuwait at the end of the Gulf War as the United States approaches. All of the footage is shot from a bird’s-eye camera soaring above the landscape in stunning helicopter shots, which today would surely be done by drone footage. The images, contrary to most modern depictions of war, are painterly and mesmerizing: columns of fire raging, miles of tarred fields, billowing black clouds of smoke. But this romanticization comes at a terrible cost — human life. There are very few people populating “Lessons of Darkness,” and the suggestion is that beauty only comes after the destruction of every living thing. Herzog characteristically narrates the film as an alien observer, arriving at a beautiful planet in which the apocalypse has already happened and the costs of war are universal to us all.
In contrast to Herzog’s sweeping film is Miles Lagoze’s “Combat Obscura” (2018), a documentary that is difficult -if not impossible- to endorse or much less watch. Lagoze, a former lance corporal in the marines deployed to Afghanistan from 2011-2012, has utterly unbelievable footage from the war. He has many scenes of fellow servicemen engaged in unnerving behavior and open misconduct. Although the footage was declassified and approved by the Pentagon, the Marine Corps threatened to sue for obvious reasons, although they never followed through. Lagoze rarely obtained permission from those he filmed, except from the Gold Star mother of a fellow marine (Lance Cpl. Christopher P.J. Levy) who is mortally wounded in the final stages of the film. In these moments, the true confusion and senselessness of war is on full display controversially without context. There is no information about where these soldiers are from, what their mission was and no justification for their actions. The film has no clear start or ending point. That makes the film particularly disturbing and frustrating to watch. But, the mother of Lance Corporal Levy wanted the public to see the film, and it is possible that by seeing this infuriating documentary, war becomes harder to justify and more lives may be spared.
All four films are available on Amazon Prime and YouTube.
(This column is written jointly by a baby boomer, Denny Parish, and a millennial, Carson Parish, who also happen to be father and son.)