American War Cinema in the 21st Century: Embrace the Suck

Article by Matt Gallagher

What’s the role of war movies in an era of perpetual conflict?

Someone recently asked me, “Why aren’t there any good movies about today’s wars?”

Looking back on it, this question was, perhaps, posed to me at an unideal time. Three rum eggnogs in at a holiday party I hadn’t really wanted to be at in the first place, I took the question like a dog getting its tail stepped on at midnight.

“No good movies about the wars? What? Fuck that question,” I said, before deciding it was the exact right time to paraphrase Tupac. “Fuck that question as a staff, record label, and as a motherfucking crew.”

The guy who’d asked it stammered out an apology, which made me feel bad. He’d just been trying to make conversation, after all, and talking with veterans can be tricky business for civilians, so I’m told. My drunken self was contributing to that gulf. My wife’s diligent eyes across the room made it clear I was to PLAY NICE. So I did my best to assure him I’d been joking, and tossed out some film suggestions about modern war that I’d found engaging.

That there haven’t been good films about the global war on terror isn’t a rare idea. Where’s the Apocalypse Now of Iraq? Why no Platoon-like epic about Afghanistan? For Christ’s sake, is there even anything on 9/11 that comes close to touching what From Here to Eternity did for Pearl Harbor? (Pearl Harbor itself, though, sucked donkey balls. I will die on that hill. Anyhow.)

And it’s not just random dudes at holiday parties saying this. In late 2018, even Hollywood golden man Tom Hanks voiced the opinion. “I don’t know that Hollywood could create an authentic story about Iraq or Afghanistan,” he said at a Washington gala for the Elizabeth Dole Foundation. “We argue about this all the time, what’s going to be the venue for the story that needs to be told.”

Far be it for me to disagree with Captain Miller of Saving Private Ryan fame, but, well, fuck it. I am. Not only do I think the folks in Hollywoodland can make good films about modern warfare, I think it’s already been done (with room for improvement, as time goes on and, well, maybe the wars actually end?). Here’s a completely subjective list of one great and four pretty good-to-goodish works that meet the ever-vaunted Gallagher Quality Threshold.

Three Kings (1999)

Two decades old and still the GOAT of modern war flicks. What’s amazing about Three Kings is how prescient it is–it’s set during Desert Storm, but manages to foresee the dark ambiguities, sectarian violence, and ruin that awaited Babylon in coming years.