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

Article by Matt Gallagher

There’s blood, there’s treasure, and sex between a Green Beret and an enterprising reporter looking for a tip. (Womp womp.) Throw in a killer script and some great performances by Ice Cube and Spike Jonze, and we’ve got ourselves an underrated classic of the genre.

American Sniper (2014)

I’ll admit to a real love-hate relationship with Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. It’s a splendidly made film from an aesthetic perspective, and the end scene is damn near perfect. But beyond the shine, given the attention it received and its star-studded cast, it lingers four years later as a huge opportunity wasted to challenge people’s mindsets about the war on terror, rather than reinforcing them. Chris Kyle the man was way more interesting than Bradley Cooper’s stoic, sheepdog John Wayne impression made him out to be: Kyle was funny, tender sometimes, and sometimes a really obvious, really awful braggart and liar. Super complicated, super raw, super honest, always interesting. A man that interesting deserved a war film about him as he actually was.

Argo (2012)

Ostensibly about the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis in Tehran, Argo pulsates with contemporary foreign policy issues in a wild, rollicking story that might make you forgive Ben Affleck for his stone-voiced turn at Batman. Based on a real-life event known as “the Canadian Caper,” Argo accomplishes the rare double feat of getting viewers to root for the CIA while also providing some perspective on the “others” who label America the Great Satan. Is it a coincidence that two of the best films about the war on terror are technically set before it commenced? Reader, it is not! History needs perspective, and perspective can often serve as art’s lifeblood. Some famous dead poet said that, I think?

Sand Castle (2017) 

A Netflix film, Sand Castle offers a gritty, grunt-view window on Iraq that’s common in our contemporary war literature but, curiously, hasn’t penetrated much of television or film. (Pet theory: Americans like soldiers in a vague, cipher-like way, but have a harder time reconciling those sanitized notions with the realities of angry, rough men and women looking to carry out violence for our state.) Sand Castle’s not without its faults–too much verisimilitude, not enough narrative arc, at least to these eyes–but screenwriter and U.S. Army veteran of Iraq Chris Roessner deserves a heap of credit for breaking through the civilian-military divides of twenty-first-century America and getting this thing made. Having talented, creative veterans like him operating in the arts is vital to our cultural and societal understanding of just what the hell has been going on since 9/11. Rich people reading this: Give that man some money to make his next film, this Penthouse columnist demands it to be so.

Homecoming (2018)

Yeah, yeah, this is a television series and not a film, and I’m cheating on my own list. Who cares? I wanted to write about Homecoming. It’s on Amazon Video! It stars Julia Roberts! And honest to Christ, it’s one of the more powerful and innovative works of antiwar art I’ve come across in years. Set in Florida at a private contractor’s medical facilities devoted to “curing” veterans’ post-traumatic stress, Homecoming is more thriller than drama, and benefits immensely from the tonal shifts therein. It doesn’t use combat or post-traumatic stress as much more than a backdrop, allowing the storytelling to free itself up for what’s happening here, stateside. It’s streamable in that addictive, lose-a-weekend sort of way; give it a run and let the commentary about the military-industrial complex’s exploitation of young people and their ideas of soldiering soak in after the fact.