Nobody who hasn’t served in the military (and I have not) knows what service is really like. Nobody who hasn’t fought in war knows what combat is really like. (Though military men generally report that Rudyard Kipling is the one civilian who got closest on both counts.) For the rest of us, a book, film, or TV series is the closest we’ll ever come to having some dim understanding of what military service — in war or peace — means.
But which ones get it right? Which movies came nearest to the unattainable ideal? Military vet. John Renehan, writing for Word & Film, argues that no one movie gets everything right, but that certain movies absolutely nail specific pieces of the experience of war:
To be in the armed services is to spend time in a parallel universe that leaves its stamp on you permanently, whether you were in for three years or twenty. […] No movie gets all of it right, but some of them get little parts of it perfect.
Best Depiction of Boot Camp: Full Metal Jacket (1987) “An obvious choice, sure, but it hasn’t been topped. [R. Lee] Ermey did something that no one had tried before: He took the timeworn, fundamentally ridiculous role of the screaming drill instructor and played it with a straight face instead of as a cartoon caricature. He understood that drill sergeants are regular sergeants playing a character, and he played his character that way. The result was funny and terrifying and totally convincing.”
Best Soldiers: Black Hawk Down (2001) “[T]he only modern war movie I can think of in which the American soldiers seem like soldiers, not like actors trying too hard to ‘do soldier.’ Single best example: the two young Rangers covering a lonely street corner who realize that the convoy has left them behind and belatedly debate among themselves what to do, finally making their bickering way across the city to safety. ‘Humvees ain’t coming back, dude.’ That’s soldiers.”
Perfect Moment of Dark Military Humor: Zero Dark Thirty (2012) This movie perfectly captured “the dry, black sense of humor military people develop in order to cope with the scary, dangerous, and generally absurd situations they routinely find themselves in. As the Navy SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty are flying through the night in overloaded, barely airworthy helicopters on their way to Usama bin Laden’s compound, one operator looks at the others and shouts, ‘How many of us have been in a helicopter crash?’ Everyone in the copter raises his hand, and the guy nods his head with false optimism. ‘So we’re good!’ he shouts. That’s military humor right there.”
Writers, directors, and actors who haven’t served can’t really know what it’s like to serve. But biographies, first-hand accounts, and well-informed technical advisors can make sure your fiction feels as much like fact as possible. In the end, it’s a matter of respect: respect for the audience and respect for the long line of veterans who’ve come before.
Renehan lists six other movies that exactly nailed specific pieces of military service, including the Best War Film Ever Made. You can read them all At The Link!