Socially conscious military films bring a new viewpoint to war
“Top Gun: Maverick” proved at the summer box office that rah-rah military movies are a force to be reckoned with.
A number of even more recent service-related films, however, have more thoughtful agendas in mind. They take on women at war, race and sexual orientation in uniform, the fundamental horrors of armed conflict and inequity-triggered future combat.
If we don’t want to use the loaded “woke” to describe this deployment of socially conscious military films, let’s say that they’re collectively sounding a reveille.
“Our industry is continuing to shift and allowing in new filmmakers who are bringing their specific lens to stories,” says “The Woman King” director Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose September release is the first to spotlight the female Agojie warriors of Africa’s 19th century Dahomey Kingdom. “There are so many movies about war and soldiers that have been told from one point of view for a very long time. I find it exciting to tell different stories within the military.”
To tell and to show. Prince-Bythewood is especially proud of the four months of fight training that stars Viola Davis, Lashana Lynch and others underwent in order to pull off persuasive, exhilarating combat action.
“You’re not watching stuntwomen,” Prince-Bythewood notes. ”You’re watching women who trained to be warriors. There’s something really powerful in that; it is reframing the narrative of what people think women are capable of, physically, mentally and courageously.”
Director J.D. Dillard had a personal connection to “Devotion,” a film opening this month about the first African American Navy pilot, Jesse Brown (played by Jonathan Majors) and wingman Tom Hudner (“Top Gun: Maverick’s” Glen Powell, performing similar duty). Thirty years after this true Korean War story, the filmmaker’s father was the second Black pilot on the Navy’s Blue Angels team.
Though “Devotion” may play like an old-fashioned buddy movie, the director saw its racism elements through modern eyes.
“I only wanted enough to honor the reality, but not be gross about it,” Dillard says. “So much of Jesse’s life is that of love, with [wife] Daisy and their daughter and aviation, and the firm understanding of being one of the best. Contextually, you already know part of what he was experiencing. The exercise in ‘Devotion’ was seeing the maintenance of that excellence. What is it like to stay there becomes the more interesting conversation — to me, at least, in 2022.”
The framework of “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship and Sacrifice” by military writer Adam Makos is the close relationship of two Navy pilots — Tom Hudner and Jesse Brown — during the Korean War.
“The Inspection,” opening next week, wins top personal military movie honors. The semi-autobiographical first feature by writer-director Elegance Bratton recounts his experience, fictionalized in the character Ellis French (Broadway and “Hollywood” sensation Jeremy Pope), as a gay Marine recruit in basic training during the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” mid-2000s.
“We are rooted in the point of view of a Black, queer recruit,” Bratton says. “It is very much a conversation between a movie like ‘Beau Travail’ and a movie like ‘Full Metal Jacket.’ When you’re in French’s point of view, it’s predominantly a handheld camera-type film, but when you see French in the military world, it’s very composed and classical. What I’m trying to suggest is the shaky ground that queer troops have stood on during so many years of it being illegal to be gay. We’ve never really seen what it’s like for someone who’s queer to stand on that ground.”
Available now on Apple TV+, “Causeway” is the most current of the season’s military films. Producer-star Jennifer Lawrence plays Lynsey, an Army engineer returned from Afghanistan after suffering traumatic brain injuries from an IED explosion. Although early scenes depict her reclaiming motor skills, the movie’s main drama explores Lynsey’s struggle to reconnect with people back home in New Orleans.
“TBI has become one of the hallmark injuries in the contemporary military,” notes director Lila Neugebauer, who spoke extensively with afflicted veterans and Veterans Administration medical professionals. “It is painfully common.”
Begun before the COVID-19 shutdowns and resumed two years later, the production developed additional resonance as everyone relearned to relate to others in person.
“The film is arguably less concerned with what happened to [Lynsey] and more concerned with how to cope with what happened and how to keep living,” stage veteran Neugebauer observes. “That was always true, but going through our own period of isolation affirmed our commitment to that.”
Two more retro films deliver classic antiwar messages that, considering the horrors and fears coming out of Ukraine at the moment, may be as relevant as ever.
Netflix’s new adaptation of that granddaddy of modern antiwar novels, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in author Erich Maria Remarque’s original German, charts the slaughter of the World War I trenches from teenage conscripts’ and clueless officers’ viewpoints. The nearly century-old story, which was made into 1930’s best picture Oscar winner by Hollywood, gains authentic nuances from German director Edward Berger’s native sensibility.
And from current events.
“We obviously have a war going on right now in Europe,” Berger says. “It wasn’t news when we started the movie, though there are images in it — for example, the general sitting all alone at his long table — that remind us of what’s happening now in Russia. That’s an unfortunate coincidence. But what we were able to see two-and-a-half years ago was a big shift in politics toward the far right, and we saw where that rise in nationalism led to 100 years ago.”
American pacifism’s been shaped by the Vietnam War for half a century. A weird true story from that conflict inspired the film “The Greatest Beer Run Ever” by Peter Farrelly, the director of 2018 best picture “Green Book.” Chickie Donohue (Zac Efron), a merchant marine who brought cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon to his buddies serving in Vietnam, got his clueless eyes opened to the war’s futility when the Tet Offensive interrupted his trip.
Peter Farrelly’s “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” starring Zac Efron, recounts a Vietnam war story that’s stranger than fiction
“This is unique in the sense that it is a war story told through a civilian’s point of view,” says the feature’s producer Andrew Muscato, who directed an earlier documentary of Chickie and the vets’ reunion. “Chickie is a stand-in for the general public at that time, which was the moment when the view of the war changed, the famous Walter Cronkite broadcast.”
That was back when a network news anchor could influence the whole nation. Now our information sources are atomized and unreliable. An unverified, viral video ignites “Athena,” Romain Gavras’ French gendarmes-vs.-banlieue youths thriller that, though speculative, looks like it could erupt any minute now.
“We saw this film almost as a war movie, but in a kind of Greek tragedy way,” says the director, whose father is the renowned Greek political filmmaker Costa-Gavras. “The pattern of it could have happened in the Trojan War or future wars. It’s always the same pattern that starts wars, a way of dealing with grief and pain. This is what Greek tragedy brings, real-time sense experience and iconography that is mythical, primal and timeless.”
Like war itself, regardless of how enlightened the movies made about it are.
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