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What Should a War Movie Do?

Since Vietnam, many war films have lost their critical edge, preferring to engage with the experience of war rather than its politics.

Sony Pictures

In the year I was born, 1967, the most respected newsman in America was Walter Cronkite, the most recognizable soldier was General William Westmoreland, and the media was staffed with journalists like David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and Michael Herr, who’d reported extensively on the ground in Vietnam and contested Westmoreland’s rosy assessments about the “success” of the war effort—a judgment that Cronkite would ratify by pronouncing the war a “stalemate” in 1968. These reporters had a hard won sense that war was not to be celebrated, that Vietnam wasn’t a character-building experience, designed to turn the soft, post-war generation into the soldiers their fathers had been. Rather, war was something the government tended to lie about with impunity. The adults in my life all seemed to know what the Vietnam War was about, but none of them wanted to tell me. The movies of that era were the adult voices that helped me understand the paralyzing silence when my older cousin dropped the phrase “My Lai” into a conversation, and they gave me some idea as to why even my father, a veteran who was the son of a decorated WWI hero, thought Vietnam was unnecessary.

Ben Fountain, the author of the 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a group of Iraq War soldiers on a media tour, is also a member of my generation, born in 1958, and I’d found in his novel a familiar shock and concern over how profoundly America’s attitude toward war had changed since our youth. Some of the novel’s best passages involve a movie producer negotiating with Hollywood directors eager to transform a viral video of Specialist Billy Lynn’s battle with Iraqi insurgents into a comforting, patriotic war film. “What you guys did out there,” the producer assures Billy, “that’s the happiest possible result of the human condition. It gives us hope; we’re allowed to feel hopeful about our lives.” In Fountain’s view—and mine—this is the textbook definition of an irresponsible war film, one that avoids a true accounting of war’s cost, and instead reassures the public that it’s the “happiest possible result” of our government’s policies.

At first glance, Ang Lee’s new adaptation of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk seems to agree with Fountain’s critique. Lynn and his fellow soldiers know their experience in Iraq wasn’t engineered to give anyone hope, but thanks to their low pay and dismal post-war job prospects, they’re willing to sell their story to make a buck. The soldiers become pawns in a celebratory tour to build support for the war effort: Perched in seats at a simulacrum of Cowboys Stadium, they deal with pestering fans who ham-handedly “thank them for their service.” It’s a bleak, unsettling premise, and it’s about what I expect from a film about the effects of a bleak, unsettling war.

But what disturbed me as I peered at Lee’s cinematography through my 3D glasses—the film was shot at a surreal and crisp 120 frames per second—wasn’t the premise or the film’s oddly clean, airbrushed images of Iraq. It was the way the movie felt so comfortable, so familiar; a paean to brotherhood and an affirmation of soldierly values, with rich, lazy civilians as the bad guys. In other words, it felt a lot like every other contemporary war film I had seen since I’d watched The Hurt Locker in 2009—a film made during the tail-end of the Bush administration, with the President’s false promise of “mission accomplished,” and watched by rapt, hopeful audiences at beginning of the Obama administration. By then, I’d been to Iraq as a reporter. I’d seen Colin Powell assure the U.N. that Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction when it didn’t, observed the disastrous results of Paul Bremer’s order to disband the Iraqi Army, and listened to Donald Rumsfeld’s dissembling press conferences. I knew that invading Iraq had been a choice, not a necessity, and I expected these war films to connect the politics of the war to its practice. Instead, these films claimed to be about the “experience” of war alone, as if that could somehow be divorced from all the complicated things that had caused it.

“I’m anti-war, but I’m pro-the people forced to engage with it,” director Kathryn Bigelow told Time magazine in 2013 about The Hurt Locker and its follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, a dramatic recreation of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This formulation—paired with the cliché “there’s no politics in the trenches,” which Bigelow cites in other interviews—would prove to be the rule, not the exception, for war films of the early twenty-first century. Hate the sin but not the sinner; support the troops, on screen and off.   

The war films of the 1970s and 1980s—headlined by classics like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket—were critical riffs on the arrogance and madness of the solitary American hero. They were themselves reactions against the type of violent, solitary, self-assured gunslingers who’d ruled the range in Hollywood Westerns for decades. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, the character Joker reverts to an impression of John Wayne when he wishes to mock the jingoism and futility of the American war effort. Wayne was a well-known supporter of the war in Vietnam, and his 1968 film The Green Berets was widely panned for what the critic Roger Ebert called its clichéd attempt to depict Vietnam “in terms of cowboys and Indians”—proof to Kubrick and many others of just how out of touch the men of Wayne’s generation and mindset were with the realities of Vietnam. (Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his recent book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and other writers have accurately pointed out that even the most acclaimed films of the era were out of touch with the Vietnamese reality of the war.)

Meanwhile, M*A*S*H (1970)—a Vietnam-era film that took place during the Korean War—featured comic anti-heroes like Hawkeye and Trapper John, iconoclastic surgeons who were engaged with the price of violence, rather than its benefits. In the film’s closing frames, their friend Duke imagines returning home to civilian life and nearly bolts from the operating theater. These heroes would rather hang out with their pals than fight. The same could be said for the small town, blue-collar protagonists in The Deer Hunter who deploy to Vietnam. The brotherhood of soldiers had also been a powerful trope in earlier WWII war films like The Great Escape (1963). But in Vietnam-era films, the protagonists in The Deer Hunter are friends before they ever go to war; in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), a group of soldiers is riven by personal and political conflicts. Brotherhood isn’t forged by combat; instead, it’s destroyed by war.

By the 1990s, the cultural consensus represented by the Vietnam-era movies began to shift. For those who’d never liked these films’ skeptical critique of military power, the 1991 Persian Gulf War offered a chance to revise the story. In his 1993 book, Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War, Rick Atkinson claimed that the war revealed “the resurgent vigor of the American military after a generation of convalescence.” One year later, Robert Zemeckis’s blockbuster Forrest Gump became one of the first successful movies since The Green Berets to view the Vietnam War through a positive, aspirational lens. The character of Forrest is the apotheosis of traditional, martial values—values which remain unquestioned, even as the world begins to shatter around him. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you they’re better than you, Forrest,” his mother instructs him not long after he learns he was named after his ancestor, a Confederate general and member of the Ku Klux Klan. “Did you hear what I said, Forrest? You’re the same as everybody else.” It’s an odd thing to say to a young, well-off Southern white boy in the 1950s, but that’s the point: Forrest is the same as everybody else, so long as he doesn’t ask the questions asked by previous Vietnam-era movies, where characters argue over the causes and purpose of the war. Toward the end of Full Metal Jacket, for instance, one soldier asserts that a comrade has died for the cause of freedom. “Flush out your head gear new guy,” responds Animal Mother. “You think we waste gooks for freedom? This is a slaughter. If I’m going to get my balls blown off for a word, my word is poontang.” During the Vietnam sequences at the heart of Forrest Gump, Forrest quietly does his duty, fighting the enemy, writing letters home to his unfaithful, war-protesting girlfriend, and he is rewarded, in the end, with the Medal of Honor. It’s an apolitical, sanitized version of war, a version of the earnest, idealized GIs who appeared in bestsellers from the same era like Band of Brothers (1992) and Flags of Our Fathers (2000).

Like the Persian Gulf War, the return to World War II narratives during the 1990s and 2000s offered war stories cleansed of Vietnam’s political complications. As Hollywood discovered there was money to be made in promoting “the resurgent vigor of the American military,” an emphasis on “true stories” began to take hold, a correction of a cynical narrative with a hopeful one.  

In Randall Wallace’s 2002 revisionist film We Were Soldiers, based on a 1992 book by Lt. General Harold G. Moore, the director attempted a similar reinterpretation of Vietnam. Moore claimed in his book, “Hollywood got it wrong every damned time, whetting twisted political knives on the bones of our dead brothers”—a reference aimed squarely at films like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. One thing We Were Soldiers seemed intent on getting right involved its depiction of the “proper” American family: When President Johnson orders Moore’s cavalry division to Vietnam, the camera cuts to a tableau of the soldiers’ wives, impeccably dressed in skirts, patterned blouses, matching sweaters, pearl necklaces, and hair bands—a sequence I consider to be a deliberate rebuke to the Playboy Bunny concert in Apocalypse Now. The chaos, violence, and crazed horniness of the troops in that scene are meant to reflect the disintegration of the traditional social order back home. But here, as the soldiers’ wives gather at a table covered with flowers and cookies, the traditional social order is perfectly in place. “Get out your best dresses, ladies,” Moore’s wife says, looking anguished. “They’re going to want to celebrate.”

The 1990s and early 2000s were years of relative wealth and prosperity, warmed by the afterglow of the “success” of the Gulf War in 1991, and the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. But as our time in the Middle East ground on against an enemy that was rootless and stateless, an open-ended war proved to have very real and catastrophic costs both for American soldiers and for the inhabitants of the countries we’d invaded. And yet, rather than examine those costs—personal, economic and political—war films have continued to take pains to portray our soldiers as paragons of toughness, capable of shouldering war’s burden, however costly, while the audience can safely sit back and cheer.

I think back to the wedding scene in the Pennsylvania mill town that’s home to the characters in The Deer Hunter—the bride and groom are carried out of the community hall, cheered on after a long night of dancing. It’s one of the most sensitive portraits of blue-collar life in American film: It’s the late 1960s, the protagonists are steel workers, a good American job for good Americans. And yet, when I watch that scene today, I think, That steel mill has gone under by now. That world has disappeared and it’s never coming back. I wonder if this is what separates the war films of my youth from today’s. In the wake of the great recession, maybe war seems like an opportunity. Or rather, maybe we, the movie-going public, need to believe that it is. 

The veterans I know don’t think of war like this. In 2006, I embedded with a company of combat engineers in Iraq; for them, blowing up bombs was serious business, not an opportunity for self-expression. When The Hurt Locker came out a few years later, the movie’s John Wayne-style hero, a reckless, blowhard bomb defuser named Sergeant James, amused the soldiers. “You don’t have to be a hero to get rid of an IED,” one of them told me back in 2006, “All you do is put a charge on top, back off, and blow it up.”

But this kind of hero persisted into the next decade: It was good for the box office and good, it seemed, for America’s morale. Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper, based on the life of Chris Kyle, a decorated Navy SEAL who served four tours in the Iraq War, took the single-man theory of war established by The Hurt Locker to a bombastic level. The casts of Peter Berg’s The Lone Survivor (2013) and Michael Bay’s recent 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi—both directors have made a career out of these kinds of tough-guy “true story” films—are composed of nearly interchangeable great men of war: bearded, gruff, devoted husbands who call their wives with an impressive regularity. Chris Kyle’s death at the hands of another veteran makes his personal life a touchy subject, but in private, you’ll find very few veterans, at least among the ones I have talked to, who express much fondness for the self-serving way American Sniper emphasizes Kyle’s personal awesomeness. “Doesn’t anybody know how arrogant that guy was?” one asked me recently, after a few beers.

 War movies may or may not be valuable for veterans—having experienced war, no movie is likely to shape their opinion about what it means—but they’re clearly valuable for us, the civilians who send soldiers to war but don’t bear the cost of the fight. They also establish the meaning of the war for the next generation. That’s why I hoped that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk might signal a return to the complex, skeptical films of the 1970s and 1980s. Fountain’s novel saw how corporate America’s embrace of veterans—symbolized by the NFL’s eagerness to associate itself with the “brand” of the American soldier—was more selfish and opportunistic than pro-military. His book pushes us to consider how we all use our love of veterans to keep the darker complexities of their experiences, and our complicity, as voters and taxpayers, in those experiences, at arm’s length.

In places, Ang Lee’s film follows up on this uncomfortable critique. The halftime show is genuinely terrifying, and its heavy-handed irony is hard to miss. Billy’s sister, Kathryn, gives a few speeches that address the politics of the conflict, including the Bush Administration’s big lie about WMDs, but there are also troubling elisions. In the book, Staff Sergeant David Dime is defined affectionately as a “Fuckin’ Liberal,” but his contrarian political views aren’t emphasized in the movie. This causes Kathryn’s speeches to feel like exactly what they are—speeches given by an outsider whose advice Billy chooses not to take. The film also adds a hallucinatory conversation that Billy has with his dead friend Shroom who cites some shamanistic-sounding philosophy before suggesting that Billy’s true insight should be that it’s his time to “step up.” And thus the film’s final message seems to be that Billy should stop questioning the war, love his brothers, and return to battle.

In Lee’s adaptation, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk doesn’t feel like a challenge to the aspirational template established by The Hurt Locker and American Sniper—it feels like a watered-down repetition. I wasn’t surprised when, reading the press materials, producer Rhodri Thomas described Billy Lynn’s story as “anti-war but very much pro-soldier”—a direct recapitulation of Bigelow’s terms. The movie’s occasional doubts about the wisdom of this formulation aren’t likely to help at the box office either. Narratives are always more powerful when they have the courage of their convictions, even if those convictions elide facts that might unsettle or disturb its audience. Even if they remind me of the same convictions that make it so easy for civilians like us to start wars in the first place: Don’t ever let anybody tell you they’re better than you, America. Did you hear what I said, America? You’re the same as everybody else.