The popularity in recent years of war films such as Lone Survivor and American Sniper have demonstrated a resurgence of the war film genre. Few films were made in the years between Operation Desert Storm and the present, similar to war film production in the years during and after Vietnam. Public outcry or indifference serves as the most satisfying explanation of why these films are so sparsely produced, and so poorly received both critically and commercially.
The reversal of fortunes for war films comes from these recent films and their injection of national pride and heroism that are largely absent from previous films. Films often failed to peak the interest, because they focused either on the atrocities of American soldiers like those exposed at Abu Ghraib, or on the futility of fighting wars against enemies with no apparent fear of death on their own soil.
While still exploring some of these concepts of war surrounding American-involved combat in the 21st century, war films began to reinvigorate some of the sentiments similarly generated by films produced about World War II. It was The Hurt Locker in 2008 that proved such a resurgence of the genre was possible.
Although a diversity of thematic elements and narrative scope have been largely missing from those films produced about modern war in the 21st century, war films are again relevant through their revelations in a new kind of combat action unrealized in the wars of the past.
More impressive firepower, and greater technology to include unmanned aerial drones, and night-vision bring war films to the forefront of the action genre if not contributing to the discourse of war. Inspired by this renewed vigor, the following list of ten films represents the best that the genre has offered in the 21st century.
10. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
Zero Dark Thirty is perhaps best described or classified as a political thriller, or even better still as a spy thriller as it follows Maya, played by Jessica Chastain, and her years-long hunt of Osama Bin Laden. It is, however, made significant to the subject of 21st century warfare because of the involvement of the Navy SEAL team and the siege sequence that concludes the film.
As Maya’s search that has lasted longer than a decade comes to a conclusion and the Navy SEAL team moves stealthily on the compound hiding Bin Laden, repeated images are seen through night vision goggles. The night vision imagery and sequences of precise, quiet combat has become the most iconic staple of the war film genre in the 21st century.
Even though night vision has appeared in several war films before the 21st century – Courage Under Fire (Edward Zwick, 1996) and G.I. Jane (Ridley Scott, 1997) – visuals in night vision were popularized by video games like the Call of Duty franchise, then used in Act of Valor (Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh, 2012) as a possible recruiting tool.
Night vision imagery alone is not particularly significant, but Kathryn Bigelow proved with The Hurt Locker (as discussed below) that films could be made about modern war where heroes are made of the soldiers that fight in a time when war is largely unpopular while also complicating both individual and geopolitical motives for going to war. It is the persistent contribution of Bigelow that grants this film an entry here as one of the ten best war films of the 21st century.
9. In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis, 2007)
2007 was a watershed year for the 21st century war film. In part, this is because the consciousness of Americans and the global community was at its peak regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Unlike previous conflicts, soldiers in the 21st century have unrestricted and unencumbered access to photography and video equipment to document their experiences.
This film suggests that these first person documentations are more important for those that do not participate in combat. Hank Deerfield, played by Tommy Lee Jones, discovers the horrible details of his son, Michael’s, deployment to Iraq through a series of scrambled videos taken by Michael in Iraq.
Hank, also a veteran of war, demonstrates the changing attitudes about war as well as he uncovers the changes in actual warfare, to include soldiers’ ability to document what’s going on around them in real time. While the videos are revealing to Hank about his son’s traumatic experiences, their place in the narrative structure are also telling about how first-hand accounts can expose soldiers’ experiences at war otherwise unknown to those unexposed to wartime.
Although actual combat is largely absent in this film as Mike’s experiences are revealed in the videos sparsely spaced over the time of the film. The shocking images focus the attention of the film to the horrors of war mostly specific to modern warfare of the 21st century.
More importantly is how these images also expose the indifference of society to those traumas. Unlike any time before in American history soldiers are returning home to a level of indifference that is alarming considering some of the imagery and soldier experiences contained in this film.
Although audiences can be made uncomfortable by this film’s ability to turn the lens of criticism on the audience and its lack of involvement in supporting physically and emotionally scarred soldiers returning home. It is this unusual trait that make In the Valley of Elah essential to this list of 21st century films about 21st century war.
8. Redacted (Brian De Palma, 2007)
This film could be viewed as a remake of sorts of Casualties of War (1989) because of the strong similarities between the two films’ plots. Like In the Valley of Elah, this film explores soldiers’ ability to record war in real time taking its perspective from an Army Private, Angel Salazar’s, video camera.
Salazar, played by Izzy Diaz, is an aspiring filmmaker hoping to submit his video diary as part of his application to the USC Film Program. What the camera records forms De Palma’s recreation of true events – Casualties of War was also based on real events from the Vietnam War. Both films tell stories of rape and murder controversially orchestrated by American soldiers.
With a disjunctive narrative that tasks the viewer to fill in the gaps between recordings, the film lacks catharsis as it ends unconvincingly with a video of an emotional confession of one of the other soldiers involved. In the contrived ending sequences this film necessitates its own existence and its inclusion in this list by providing a mirror to society at the time the film was produced – lacking real answers about the theater of war and begging for closure.
7. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, 2010)
An incredibly ambitious undertaking by Junger and Hetherington to document the actions of an Army platoon over the course of an entire year on the ground in Afghanistan in what is described as “the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.” The film takes its title from the name of an outpost where 2nd Platoon, B Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team spends their year in a fight for control of the Korengal Valley.
Restrepo is also the name of a soldier of this unit who was killed in action and is memorialized by the outpost’s naming. Hetherington and Junger bring combat action to the screen in a visceral way that never achieved before. With the nearly immediate availability of images in the new millennium the fever of the gunfights and combat patrols shown in this film bring combat to the audience in the now.
Because the war in Afghanistan still raged at the film’s release, Restrepo presents modern war to its viewers in perhaps the most current, unadulterated way possible without actually experiencing combat. For the bold risks taken by the film’s creators, who put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of documenting something relevant but largely unseen, and the broad scope of this uninhibited look at this brave group of soldiers, Restrepo is a must see. Tim Hetherington was later killed in Libya while attempting to document similar hostilities.
6. Battle for Haditha (Nick Broomfield, 2007)
Continuing in the vein of documentary, Nick Broomfield lends his experience in the tradition – Soldier Girls of 1981, Kurt and Courtney of 1998, and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer of 2003 – to create another factually based fiction fit for this list. In an effort at realism, Broomfield employs some key methods of the documentary tradition. Nothing is so important to the film as the use of participants of real world events in cameos or roles small and large in the filming.
Cast in the lead role for this film is ex-marine Elliot Ruiz – the youngest Marine in country at the time of his real world deployment to Iraq at 17 years old. Ruiz’s character, Corporal Ramirez, appears before the camera early on in improvised scenes, along with other soldiers to describe the monotony filled with danger that is the nature of a deployment to Iraq. The removal of scripting in these moments lends some credence to the factual nature of the film and further complicates American involvement in Iraq and the effect that involvement has on soldiers.
The documentary technique and other efforts towards realism weight the suggestion of the film that the officers in command of today’s military are more responsible for soldiers’ actions, such as those in this film, than the soldiers themselves. While Broomfield’s utilization of documentary technique and style are important to this film’s inclusion to this list, it is more important to consider this film for a list such as this, because of its pointed critique at the leadership that guides today’s American military.