War movies have been around nearly as long as film itself, but every now and then the genre seems to spark a new resonance in the public imagination.
The late 1980s saw a spate of Vietnam War movies ("Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," "Casualties of War") as filmmakers and the country began processing in earnest the consequences of that conflict. A decade later, baby boomers took a renewed interest in the "Greatest Generation" that both raised them and fought World War II, making and supporting films such as "Saving Private Ryan," "The Thin Red Line" and "The English Patient."
Now the recent successes of "Unbroken" and "American Sniper" are capping one of the strongest years for war movies in recent memory, once again proving the genre's capacity for relevance.
"Unbroken," Angelina Jolie's biopic about the Olympic runner turned World War II bombardier and POW Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), scored the third-highest Christmas opening day ever and grossed $47.3 million over the four-day holiday weekend.
Although the film garnered mixed reviews as a dutiful but wearying portrait of a man on the battlefield, audiences gave it an A-minus on Cinemascore, apparently responding to the themes of old-fashioned grit and determination.
Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood's "Sniper," about the late Navy SEAL and sharpshooter Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), opened in four theaters and earned the third-highest per-location average ever for a live-action film. It received generally favorable reviews as a taut, sure-handed drama and received an A+ CinemaScore to boot.
"Unbroken" and "Sniper" come on the heels of David Ayer's in-the-trenches World War II drama "Fury," which was a solid box-office performer in spite of grisly subject matter and R-rated violence. Earlier this year, George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" also had a respectable run in theaters as it took on the era of World War II via the less conventional vantage point of the art world.
It's hard to say what specifically makes any movie catch on, let alone a period film, but there seem to be several factors at work here. In tackling the war on terror, films like "American Sniper" — and its spiritual siblings "Lone Survivor," "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Hurt Locker," all of which have enjoyed success of some sort in the last few years — throw light on our current state of affairs.
Films such as "Unbroken" and "Fury," meanwhile, offer the same appeal via a different approach--they help us understand the origins of modern warfare, using the prism of the past to allow us to examine the more fraught conflicts of the present.
War is much more complicated than even the most sophisticated films can show. But for a nation that has been involved in numerous military entanglements over the last century — and which has seen its toughest questions go unresolved on the fields of battle — there's something cathartic, if not comforting, about engaging with the subject in our movie theaters.
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