5. Jarhead (Sam Mendes, 2005)
Based on the autobiography of the same title, this film isolates and examines some key points in the 21st century critique of war. Most ubiquitous throughout is the critique of the American military masculine. Continued reference is made to a soldier’s competence and efficiency being directly related to some concept of complete – or incomplete – masculinity. Simple mistakes or errors in judgment make a soldier less of a man, and perfect execution of a task elevates one to superior among men.
The expectation of violence and opportunity to prove oneself on the field of battle plays a large role in the construction of the military masculine, and is central to this film’s relevance. Swofford and his compatriots desire more than anything to demonstrate their skill in combat, but their combined attributes are nullified by American technological superiority over the enemy.
In a sequence where A10 Warthogs fly overhead and eventually fire on Swofford’s platoon the film demonstrates the American military’s will to eliminate the strategically obsolete. Swofford’s accounts isolate technology’s replacement of military “muscle” and comment on this contradiction of history, wherein individual exploits were praised and soldiers used technology as a tool rather than be overcome by it.
4. American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)
In an effort to make war films more amenable to audiences than those of earlier war years (those films of 2007 mentioned above and many others were poorly received at the box office) filmmakers have begun again to use storytelling devices common to the films of World War II.
For example, 21st century films of modern war have begun with more regularity to tell the stories of individual accolade and success in battle. Clint Eastwood’s most recent film tells the story of Navy SEAL Christopher Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, the deadliest sniper in American history.
His proficiency as a sniper is drawn to his earliest hunting experiences where he learned to shoot from his father, and his success as a Navy SEAL is most specifically linked to his adrenaline seeking behavior as a rodeo cowboy, and his perceived stubbornness, which allows him to overcome the rigorous SEAL training process and avoid an attrition rate sometimes over 90%.
All this exposition sets up Kyle’s unrelenting search for the enemy and his unquenchable desire to save the lives of his “brothers” sends him to Iraq on four separate tours of duty. This timeline sees almost all of his SEAL Team comrades killed in action, succumbing to their wounds, or discharged from service forced by the strains on family.
Kyle’s drive to always do more sets him apart from other soldiers, and leaves him dissatisfied. Instead of providing overwatch as a sniper, Kyle joins Marines that clear structures possibly harboring insurgents. Instead of allowing others to search for a high priority target of the enemy, Kyle insists upon putting a team together of his own to accomplish the task.
The ideal that is created in the process is complicated by the inclusion of Kyle’s experiences stateside between deployments. His dedication to service strains his marriage and the horrors of war effect every one of his social interactions. Still though, Kyle finds a way and elects to work with veterans struggling with lingering wounds, and reintegrating into society.
His realization that veterans sometimes need to be saved as well provides him with an opportunity to treat his own PTSD and continue to serve his country. The story of an incredible man, who did difficult and amazing things, is made significant by this film’s depiction of the demon’s that tugged at Kyle over time and repeated exposure to combat. The reach of Kyle’s accomplishments and connection to others through service make American Sniper a must see.
3. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
Nominated for 9 Academy Awards, and winner of 6, The Hurt Locker is perhaps the most critically acclaimed war film about modern war made in the 21st century. Kathryn Bigelow succeeded to bring popularity to a genre of film that had lost traction with audiences since the invasions, liberations, and attempted democratizations of Iraq and Afghanistan began.
Bigelow’s offering set itself apart both by bringing critical and commercial success to the war genre once again, and examining the American soldier’s addiction to war. Sergeant First Class William James, played Jeremy Renner, symbolizes this addiction as he is only at ease demonstrating his proficiency at his craft of defusing improvised explosive devices, and is lost at anything else.
Although the film follows a series of James’s reckless and dangerous decisions, he comes away from his deployment unscathed. And, although he returns home to a wife and child, his addiction to the adrenaline of being on the brink of death and the intense violence common to wartime consumes him and he turns to his drug of choice, the theater of war, for relief.
The presentation of war as addiction is enough to make this film one of the best war films of the 21st century, but the film also contributes to the discourse of military masculinity, and the homoeroticism arising from the necessity of the military being a homosocial organization (until recently). All of this solidifies The Hurt Locker as one of the best in the genre’s history.
2. Lone Survivor (Peter Berg, 2013)
Taking the same cue as American Sniper, this film tells the story of an individual’s heroic story of survival. Recounting the story of Operation Red Wings, where American forces intended to disrupt Anti-Coalition Militia activities led by Ahmad Shah to facilitate elections for the Afghani Parliament. A four-man Navy SEAL team moved into position close to Shah’s believed location and awaited instructions.
Poor intelligence about troop strength and a chance encounter with three Taliban-sympathetic goatherds compromises the SEALs’ mission and forces them to run and fight for their lives. This film’s success comes from its persistence of action. War films of every era often include dramatic interludes to develop characters, inject a romantic plot line, or to provide commentary on the wartime condition of a soldier or of society. The reality, though, is that war is unending and relentless in its taxation of the human condition.
This film takes a different tack by forcing the audience to participate in the endurance trial that is combat. Brief moments do occur allowing both the characters and the audience introspection into the circumstance before them, but they only exist to humanize the soldiers of this story, and to demonize the Taliban to some extent. The attention to the grueling trial of combat and of survival with only the minimum necessary attention to dramatic development makes this film a must see for anyone who is a fan of war films.
1. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
The subjective nature of art makes it impossible to say definitively what is the best of any medium or genre. That being said, Black Hawk Down is probably the closest to the distinction of best 21st century war film about 21st century war. We can be assured of this because of its inclusion of so many of the thematic elements, storytelling devices, and cinematic techniques that have been mentioned thus far in addition to some unique style elements of its own.
Some of the shared traits include persistence of action as seen in Lone Survivor, perceived addiction to war as demonstrated by the films The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, allusions to the so-called importance of the military masculine from Jarhead, multiple perspectives similar to the format of Battle for Haditha, and the silent action of covert military operatives that characterizes the combat sequences of Zero Dark Thirty.
What sets Black Hawk Down apart from these other films that it shares so many commonalities with is the scope of the events depicted, and the clarity with which they are presented. The number of moving parts involved in capturing Mohamed Farrah Aidid and the resulting battle in Mogadishu in 1993, and the number of character perspectives provided is vastly larger than any other film on this list.
The scope here harkens back to war epics like The Longest Day (Darryl F. Zanuck, 1962), Battle of the Bulge (Ken Annakin, 1965), Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970), and others of the popular and productive era of war films made during and after World War II.
Without diminishing the excitement and anticipation generated by the film’s action, attention is turned to the burden of command and returns to the struggle of soldiers on the ground seamlessly and with great effect. Black Hawk Down is the touchstone for modern war films made in the 21st century because of its production time period, and because it did so much right in its depiction of modern war.
Author Bio: Timothy Buchalski, M.A. discovered his love for film while on deployment to Iraq as a part of the United States Army between 2005 and 2006. After service he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Film Studies and a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Currently Timothy exercises his cinephilic pursuits through personal means and freelance writing.