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Hollywood is no stranger to the war film. In fact, it’s one of the first genres to grace the big screen way back in the early 20th century. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a great deal of warfare over the course of human history, ranging from Biblical times to World War II to Vietnam and beyond. All of these great, terrible conflicts have been catalogued in cinema, but there’s one subgenre of war movies that is more rare: modern warfare.
There are relatively few great modern war tales when compared to cinematic masterpieces about Vietnam, the World Wars, or the U.S. Civil War. Oftentimes we need to reflect on a war and see its aftermath to really be able to put it into a cultural context in the movies, which might be why the modern warfare genre is slim compared to history that’s well in the rear view.
Nevertheless, there are indeed some fine modern military movies out there, so we thought we’d take a look at the best of the best.
As you might be able to surmise from the title of the movie, Behind Enemy Lines is the story of an officer downed and trapped… behind enemy lines. Based on events of the Bosnian War, Owen Wilson stars as Chris Burnett, a flight officer shot down in Bosnia who discovers the horrific genocide that’s going on there in secret.
Though the movie is mostly an action flick, it does have some basis in real world events: in 1995, a US Air Force Captain named Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia, where he survived for nearly a week before being rescued by Marines. Gene Hackman’s presence also helps give the film some gravitas as an Admiral trying to organize the rescue mission for Burnett.
A veteran of the war genre with the epic and phenomenal Glory, Edward Zwick turned to the Gulf War for this Denzel Washington/Meg Ryan starrer. Washington plays Colonel Serling, a tank commander who mistakenly gave the order to fire on a friendly tank, killing a comrade named Captain Boylar. The incident is covered up by the military and Serling reassigned.
When Serling is tasked with the job of determining if the deceased Captain Walden (Ryan) should receive a posthumous Medal of Honor, he stumbles upon yet another cover-up and as a result is faced with confronting his own guilt over the death of Captain Boylar. It’s a riveting drama that attempts to redefine courage and depict bravery in ways other than charging into battle.
Adapted from Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the same name, Sam Mendes’ Jarhead is a tale of young men sent to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Shield only to fight the isolation that their station holds. Swofford himself is deftly and convincingly played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who delivers a powerful performance that lets us watch Swofford’s internal undoing without ever coming off as overbearing.
Jarhead is also impressive in that it manages to stay relatively apolitical; it doesn’t comment on the war itself as much as it does show the effects of deployment on those involved.
Though arguably most memorable for its soundtrack and over-the-top volleyball scene, Tony Scott’s Top Gun is still one of the most visceral modern military movies. The flight sequences are beautifully shot and absolutely thrilling, and the characters – Maverick, Goose, Iceman, and Charlie – are engaging and likable.
Primarily a story about Maverick learning some humility, largely through the unfortunate death of wingman and best friend Goose, Top Gun certainly isn’t the most realistic or contemplative modern war movie, but it’s probably the most fun.
A modern military movie that tackles a deeply uncomfortable but rarely considered role, The Messenger stars Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson as casualty notification officers. Foster’s Sergeant Montgomery has just returned home from Iraq and is partnered with Harrelson’s Captain Stone, and the two serve to give notice to the families of the soldiers lost in battle.
It’s a delicate subject that’s dealt with in fine fashion by director Oren Moverman, supported by the incredible strength of his lead actors.