VyceVictus On THE HORNET’S NEST, KORENGAL And The Portrayal Of The U.S. Military In Film

Our own veteran speaks up on Veterans Day.

I have recently returned home from my deployment to Afghanistan. It marks my third tour of duty and my ninth year of service abroad. With all that time away, it becomes a bit strange returning home on leave each time, adjusting to the rapidly and capriciously changing social norms and cultural climate (I'm still amazed how it's cool for black kids to wear skinny jeans now). My love of watching movies during these stressful and isolated times gives me the opportunity to decompress, but it has also given me keen insight into the current head-space of our culture throughout the years. News and other information sources keep me up on current events, but there's nothing like the subconscious deep dive of a movie that lets you know where a society is really at. One thing I have paid particular attention to is the portrayal and attitudes towards our armed forces and our military power projection and how it has changed throughout the years. Several films this year emphasized just how much has changed, and I'm curious as to where things will go now that this phase of combat has ended, while another looms on the horizon.

Since the 1980s, big budget blockbusters, usually based in science fiction or fantasy elements, have dominated the cultural consciousness. In recent years, military operations and national security have become an increasingly prevalent element in genre movies, reflective of real world developments in the so-called War on Terror. Multiple films have served to either critique or promote security initiatives and operations to varying degrees. One series of films has changed its stance substantially since its initial entry, while another has subtly exhibited criticism of military actions to increasing degrees. This year, both series have released entries that share in a negative portrayal of national defense initiatives, which reflect pervasive public opinions that are increasingly critical of the U.S. involvement in conflicts overseas and methods in establishing Homeland security.

Beginning in 2007, Transformers introduced the improbable element of a mechanized alien invasion and showed how our armed forces would react in such a scenario. Many criticized the film for placing misguided focus on the live action human roles as opposed to the titular characters. More criticism was volleyed against the sequel released in 2009 and 2011, in which U.S. military forces played an increasingly prevalent role in the battle against the Decepticons. Many saw director Michael Bay’s high-gloss, stylized depiction of the military as blatant jingoism, appearing to serve as an overwhelmingly convincing recruitment tool levied upon the impressionable young male demographic that was also the target audience of the PG-13 franchise.

In 2014, however, the tone of the film series took an abrupt turn. Whereas in previous films, the U.S. military and government were generally portrayed as heroic and acting in the best interests of national security for all mankind, Transformers: Age of Extinction showed government forces in a drastically more negative light. The fourth franchise entry showcased an incompetent executive branch at the mercy of a singular conspiratorial covert operations unit which was shown to have complete disregard for innocent lives and due process in order to achieve their objectives. This is reflective of the real world resentment against the Obama administration for its abuse of information collecting via the NSA, the alleged cover ups of the deaths of U.S. personnel in Benghazi, and the perceived fear of legislation encroaching on the rights to free speech and the right to bear arms. As Devin indicated in his fantastic review, the hero in this film reflected the Conservative Tea Party-style ideal of an all-American independent thinker who takes up arms in defense of family and property, as opposed to the loyal and unwavering uniformed heroes who fought and sacrificed alongside the Autobot protagonists in previous films.

In the Marvel cinematic universe, military and defense initiatives have always played an important role in the plot. The fictional agency SHIELD, an amalgam of various real world organizations like the CIA, FBI and NSA, plays a prominent role throughout the films. Films like Iron Man deal with the U.S. role in the Afghanistan conflict, the privatization of military power and drone warfare, while the films Thor and Captain America deal with the government attempting to cope with threats to security that grow increasingly beyond their means and capability. In 2012's The Avengers, there is even an attack on New York City reminiscent of 9/11, with an element of government conspiracy added as SHIELD attempts a nuclear strike on the city in order to thwart the invading alien menace.

In 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the relationship between the idealistic superheroes and the questionable practices of the government comes to a head, resulting in the destruction of the corrupt agency. Whereas the previous films made subtle commentary on various elements of the U.S. war on terror, Winter Soldier figuratively demolishes the concept of National Security officials who serve their own interests through fear and absolute power in favor of heroes who represent idealism and use their powers to serve the greater good. This once again reflects the public opinion that opposes the leveraging of national security assets against U.S. citizens, while also admonishing the use of military operations on foreign soil to destabilize governments in the name of U.S. interests. The film makes parallels between an evil conspiracy which incites wars for profit and the criticisms levied against the previous administration for the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses. By introducing real world themes regarding national defense and terrorism into big budget blockbusters, film studios seek to create stories that will more strongly resonate with a post-9/11 audience. As tension grows between the public opinion weary of a decades-long war and the emerging threat presented by ever-evolving international terrorist groups, movies will continue to reflect the attitudes of its audience to keep them engaged.

On the other side of the filmmaking spectrum, there have been numerous short and feature length documentaries made about the War on Terror which have taken a variety of stances and agendas based on the intent of the author/director. Earlier this year, two films documenting combat in Afghanistan were released, though in this case the aims of each differed substantially.War correspondent Mike Boettcher and his son Carlos embedded themselves with multiple combat troops on the front lines of Afghanistan and used the footage collected from two years of missions to create the 2014 feature film documentary The Hornet’s Nest. The narrative construct of the film is unique in that, while it depicts real battles and soldiers as is common in most war documentaries, it also tells the story of a father attempting to reconnect with his estranged son. While these two stories would be engaging enough on their own, combining them results in a conflicting story that dilutes the film’s effect. The Hornet’s Nest seeks to hammer home the powerful emotional impact of combat, but it does so with cinematic and sound construction that may be too overtly manipulative, resulting in an experience that is enthralling in the moment, but may leave an aftertaste too bitter for some audiences.

Mike Boettcher is an award-winning journalist who has been covering war zones for various leading news media outlets for decades. Time and again he puts his physical, mental and moral well-being at risk through much travail, but what has been damaged most of all is the relationship with his son, broken by constant deployments, important occasions missed and a devotion to duty over his own family. His son Carlos decides to join Mike in his latest assignment, against his wishes, to finally comprehend once and for all why he has chosen his work over his family. This narrative conceit makes for an awkward tone, considering that the film also seeks to pay tribute to the brave men and women in the armed forces. And while war journalism certainly requires a bravery and mettle few possess, the two aims undercut each other in the end. On the one hand, a documentary directly about the seasoned documentarian who boldly forges ahead into danger alongside battle-hardened soldiers in his never-ending quest to bring the news to the public would make for a fascinating character study. Having his own son experience his journey by his side and seeing the events through each other's eyes would create parallel points of relation; through Mike’s eyes the public could better understand the war, and through Carlos’ eyes we could better understand Mike. However, the film also goes to great lengths to exalt the soldiers they document and all the sacrifices they make. In light of the men and women who must make life and death decisions every single day and whose choices come with dire consequences, the significance of the guy who is simply following around catching it all on camera suddenly becomes severely diminished.

Though the film is a documentary, there are particular stylistic flourishes made within the technical construction that are meant to add dramatic weight to the events that unfold. Compared to similar feature-length Afghanistan War documentaries, however, the techniques come off as pandering and lacking nuance for such a gravely serious subject. In documentaries such as 2010’s Restrepo, there is sparse use of music or sound effects beyond what is captured on the battlefield, in personal interviews or evoked by the soldiers themselves. In those films, the cries of anguish and rage coupled with the deafening bursts of gunfire are all that is needed to convey a sense of chaos, while the long bouts of quiet and occasional spurts of laughter are all that is needed to set the appropriate mood. In The Hornet’s Nest, however, there is constant synthesized background filler music which rises and falls as firefights ensue to inflate the sense of tension. Likewise, moments of sadness and deep reflection are synched with maudlin country guitars or overblown orchestral-styled scores which become overbearing, especially so in the instance where the sight and sound of an old man sobbing openly for the fallen soldiers under his command is more than enough to elicit the audience's own powerful emotional response.

Similarly, the visual construction via editing and cinematography definitely give the audience a sense of being right there on the front line, but the film stops short of showing the true brutality of war and instead focuses on heroism and tearjerking framing to make its point. In contrast, the 2010 documentary Armadillowhich chronicles the exploits of a Danish cavalry unit deployed to one of the most dangerous zones of the war, shows the exuberance and optimism of the soldiers but pulls no punches as it shows the graphic aftermath of their battles, their growing moral ambiguity and the depths of their soul-searching as the film lets the soldiers and the viewer come to their own conclusions about the social, political, psychological and moral costs of war. No such introspection or analysis exists in The Hornet’s Nest. Battlefield footage always stops just short of revealing the horror he witnesses during battles, and instead fades to black and cuts to interview footage of Mike Boettcher narrating the preceding events. And while the interviewed soldiers speak openly, there is nary a word of contempt or raw emotion exhibited, beyond clips of them crying which seem poised only to make the viewer cry in commiseration. By editing out the harsh realities of war, the film in a way betrays the very purpose of the war journalist, one who seeks to reveal the truth of conflict for the sake of the public’s right to know.

The Hornet’s Nest is an emotional and propulsive experience that seeks to highlight the journey of a venerated combat journalist and the selfless service of Americans who answered the call to duty. Unfortunately, trying to do both results in a discordant narrative that mars the overall experience further hindered by cloying cinematic techniques that water down content that is powerfully emotional on its own without the need for added theatrics.

The other big documentary release this year was Korengal, the sequel to the aforementioned 2012 documentary Restrepo, about a platoon of soldiers and their ill-fated mission atop an isolated outpost in eastern Afghanistan. If I made Restrepo sound like a better movie than The Hornet's Nest, Korengal is also automatically better because it is essentially more of the same. Rather than be a direct chronological sequel, Korengal simply uses additional footage not used in the the first film to expand on the situation more. This itself is the greatest criticism one can make of Korengal: that it is in essence "unnecessary," a retread of the subject matter. Though my lack of professional acumen makes it difficult for me to truly parse the frame by frame and thematic differences between the two films, as a soldier, I loved it unabashedly and with total bias, because I love soldiers, and in particular I loved spending more time with the men of Battle Company 2nd of the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, in all their flaws and virtues. My favorite thing about these movies is how they let the soldiers share their true feelings and hide nothing for the sake of bad PR or propaganda. The soldiers mourn how the long war has taken their friends and some pieces of their minds or souls, yet make no qualms about describing the pure adrenaline rush of combat, the joy of victory and how they would not hesitate for a second to return to the front lines if their brothers needed them once more. The film doesn't hide the soldier's struggles with the conflicting nature of heroism and horror in war, and leaves the audience to draw their own conclusions about these men and whether or not it was all worth it. Altogether, this companion piece on its own may not require an immediate watch, but I would highly recommend both films together as mandatory viewing for those who have not seen the first feature.

I've kind of gone all over the place in this piece, between a thesis on the evolving cinematic portrayal of the U.S. military and an outright movie review, so I apologize for the length. It's just that I have a whole lot of everything and nothing to say about what I've experienced as a soldier abroad. I also really want to lend my ear and this space as a forum for all who have their own experiences with war to share without fear of judgment (or reprisal; my internet name is just as much a veil of security as it is a stylistic stamp; no one is going to be accused of violating UCMJ for their comments here). Even now, I'm not quite sure how I'm supposed to be "celebrating" Veterans Day. In some ways it feels like congratulations for not dying, whereas on Memorial Day I remember my friends who have fallen. I feel very strongly and fondly about military service, though I abhor some of the reasons behind and methods of how we've conducted warfare. I am supremely thankful that so many brave, intelligent and compassionate men and women have chosen to serve. Even so, it is my ardent wish to have those outstanding individuals serving our communities at home and helping to ensure our prosperity and our standing in our international relationships. Unfortunately, the reality is that conflict will likely never go away, so it is my hope that our finest continue to make strides towards improving our warfighting organizations into the future with reason, practicality, compassion and decisive force when necessary, and that we may end conflicts as quickly as possible and not be dragged into long unwinnable wars like we have before.

I've completed my official reintegration process, and though I feel okay, I still feel this burning desire to talk things out with the phenomenal BAD commenters. More than movies, it has been the combination of my friends, family and the support of you all that has helped me get through this deployment with my sanity and sense of humanity intact. I could not have done this without you all. Thank you for your service to me. Peace.