Best and worst military movies: Gulf War til now

Lauren Warner
October 04, 2018 - 12:10 pm

Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

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With the Oscars this Sunday night, we here at Connecting Vets got to thinking about our favorite authentic, Oscar-worthy military films that cover the Gulf War to present-day conflicts...as well as some of the worst.

Here's what we came up with:

Best:

  • Restrepo: Nothing can really hold a candle to this since it actually is a documentary. In 2010, real filmmakers embedded with a platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan – the "deadliest place on earth." Restrepo strips away all of the gung-ho machismo one might expect from a Hollywood film and tells a real story about real Americans fighting for their lives in the closest thing to hell imaginable. Just be warned: it's not for the faint of heart. This is the one my drill sergeants highly recommended we watch, the majority of them had lived through something similar, whereas I would possibly never see anything like it since I was Public Affairs, not Infantry.

  • Zero Dark Thirty: Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Osama bin Laden becomes one of the most-wanted men on the planet. The worldwide manhunt for the terrorist leader occupies the resources and attention of two U.S. presidential administrations. Ultimately, it is the work of a dedicated female operative that proves instrumental in finally locating bin Laden. In May 2011, Navy SEALs launch a nighttime strike, killing bin Laden in his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. While not entirely accurate according to the CIA veterans who reviewed the film, due to the links the movie makes between torture and intelligence success, the movie does get it right that the hunt for bin Laden takes over ten years involving a number of intelligence agencies that eventually led the SEALs to the right place. Its strange to me that Bigelow's other film, The Hurt Locker, gets all the praise -- its definitely the other way around for most viewers who have served.

  • 12 Strong: Still a fairly new release, 12 Strong follows the story of the first Special Forces team to deploy to Afghanistan after 9/11 for Task Force Dagger. Under the leadership of a new captain, the team finds themselves working with an Afghan warlord to take down the Taliban and learning how to ride horseback through the Balkh province of Afghanistan. The movie is adapted from the book Horse Soldiers, by Doug Stanton, and the cast includes Rob Riggles, who served over 23 years in the Marines, and a number of Special Forces soldiers who were consulted in the making of the film. Personally, I love this film because I met the heroes that the story was based on at a screening, which made it all the more powerful. I understand that in the big picture, its a victory in a war that just won't seem to end...but modern-day soldiers fighting on horses like they're back in the 19th century and successfully completing a mission? Can't beat it. 

  • American Sniper: U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) takes his sole mission -- protect his comrades -- to heart and becomes one of the most lethal snipers in American history. His pinpoint accuracy not only saves countless lives but also makes him a prime target of insurgents. Despite grave danger and his struggle to be a good husband and father to his family, Kyle serves four tours of duty in Iraq. However, when he finally returns home, he finds that he cannot leave the war behind. This one hits all the feels -- as the book does as well. Anyone that's heard Taya Kyle speak knows that this story is still very present in her mind and she's become a great spokesperson for many in the veteran community. 

  • Black Hawk Down: The Oscar-award winning film about the Battle of Mogadishu is an office favorite. Set in 1993 when the U.S. sent special forces into Somalia to destabilize the government and bring food and humanitarian aid to the starving population. Using Black Hawk helicopters to lower the soldiers onto the ground, an unexpected attack by Somalian forces brings two of the helicopters down immediately. From there, the U.S. soldiers must struggle to regain their balance while enduring heavy gunfire. There's obviously no way this wouldn't make the list -- its an award winner and the whole reason I created this article! From the cast to the story-telling, this film visually depicts a terrible unexpected battle but does it very well. 

Worst:

  • The Hurt Locker: Even though The Hurt Locker seems to outrank every other movie about troops deployed to Iraq in the civilian world, it was voted the worst by this office full of veterans. Following the death of their well-respected Staff Sergeant in Iraq, Sergeant JT Stanborn and Specialist Owen Eldridge find their Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit saddled with a very different team leader. Staff Sergeant William James is an inveterate risk-taker who seems to thrive on war, but there's no denying his gift for defusing bombs. The behavior of the soldiers is highly unbelievable as is the way they conduct their mission. As an action movie, it seems to be okay, but the military inaccuracies are painful and just absolutely overpower any chance this film had at being an acceptable portrayal.

  • Jarhead: In the late 1980s, Anthony Swofford enlists as a Marine, training in boot camp under a sadistic drill instructor. Swofford undertakes a sniper course headed by Staff Sgt. Sykes during this time, which is shortly before the advent of the Gulf War. When the United States becomes involved, Swofford is shipped out, along with his spotter, Alan Troy. Facing uncertainty each day -- about the war and home -- the soldiers try to maintain composure. Aside from the accurate use of rough language (one word is used over 300 times) and the awful handheld cameras they filmed with, the attempts to focus on the repetitiveness and boredom of deployments just makes for a painfully tiring film. Anyone who's been deployed will tell you it can get boring, but it still doesn't do any justice to depiction of the effects of war on mental health. 

Want to chime in? Send us your favorite military films at gethelp@connectingvets.com.

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