FAREWELL TO ARMS: A Veterans Day War Film Retrospective

Vyce has thoughts on recent war movies and his experience as a veteran.

Earlier this year, I completed my contractual service with the United States Army; I am a civilian once more. There were many factors that went into my decision to not continue into retirement, but the short version is that the spirit was becoming less willing while the flesh became significantly less able. I am truly sad that I wasn't able to complete a full 20-year term, but I also knew that it was time to move on. Since my return home, I've welcomed the opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences in the military with anyone who asks, and I've made a point to listen to the stories of other fellow veterans and former service members. Being open about the experience is difficult for a lot of us, but I've been fortunate to find that the more I discuss it, the easier it is for me to come to terms with what happened.

Movies have always been a big part of my life, but they hold an even greater significance to me now as a means to process and cope with the confounding tribulations of my time abroad. In recent years, I've made it a point to keep up with the latest war movies in order to see how our stories and experiences are being adapted and projected to society at large. Just as talking helps me sort through my issues, absorbing these narratives of war helps me process my own internal narrative of the war I witnessed, and this year in particular has provided a wide range of interesting takes on the subject.

I would have never guessed that one of the more measured and balanced American modern warfare films to come out in recent memory would be delivered by the master of bombastic flag waving action himself, Michael Bay. Many expected that 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi would be a highly controversial and divisive work of propaganda due to its subject matter. As it turns out, 13 Hours is more successful at recreating/outdoing the ground level dramatic intensity of Black Hawk Down than almost any other war film of the 21st century. It does it better than American Sniper, Lone Survivor, Act Of Valor, and even some "lefty" war films like Hurt Locker and Green Zone. To be clear, there are certain elements about it that I found severely lacking and make me roll my eyes in embarrassment, but I'm more inclined to revisit 13 Hours than any of those other films. A movie based on a tragic real world international incident involving CIA and State Department operations in the Middle East is inherently political no matter what any marketing might say. However, by keeping focus on the (mostly indistinguishable) burly bearded men and the tension of their by-the-minute struggle, Bay avoids any finger pointing and overt proselytization.

By contrast, Mel Gibson's intense WWII biopic Hacksaw Ridge was a full bore overload of devoutly religious melodrama and patriotic hero worship, though it isn't without its positive attributes. The weird thing about movies based on war heroes is that often times, the real life story seems stranger than fiction. The famed combat medic Desmond Doss might come across as an infallible angel of mercy in Gibson's depiction, but as the details of his incredible Medal Of Honor citation indicate, his single-handed rescue of 75 wounded soldiers under fire is truly the stuff of legend. Andrew Garfield does an outstanding job paying tribute to Doss with his heartfelt performance, but the script and direction mar what could have been a real masterpiece.

Some of the truly best cinema about war this year came, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the international/foreign film circuit. An outside view of our machinations of war often helps provide a more well rounded exploration of our predicament, and one film that marvelously demonstrates this is the British production Eye In the Sky. This film was immensely resonant to me because of its focus on the strategic command/intelligence portion of modern warfare and how the twisting bureaucracy of angry men and women in rooms far away from the front line effects the boots on the ground and the civilians caught between the cross hairs of our enemy targets. Whereas last year's Good Kill took us through the increasing misadventures of one poor Predator pilot to diminishing effect, Eye in The Sky instead presents a perfect storm of an incident that expertly showcases the plight of everyone involved in the kill chain. From the pilot and sensor operators who pull the trigger, to the intel analysts who make collateral damage assessments, to the commanders who bear operational responsibility, to the politicians who deal with the political ramifications of military activity, and to the Echelons above God that deliver mandates of destruction that all those below must contend with and ultimately execute; Eye In The Sky shows just how the many involved hands trying to do their very best all end up with blood on them in the end.

Another film that I found powerfully resonant with my experience was the French film Neither Heaven Nor Earth. What starts out as a standard war drama soon turns into a haunting psychological horror film as a troop of French soldiers stationed at a remote outpost in Afghanistan begin to crack when their men start disappearing without a trace. If Eye in the Sky reflected my true to life operational experience, Neither Heaven Nor Earth manifests the powerful sense of regret and longing for salvation that I have felt after my collective deployments. This emotion is evoked thanks to masterful direction by Clément Cogitore in his feature film directorial debut, as well as the rock solid performance of Jérémie Renier (no, not that one) as Captain Antares along with a crew of distinct and well rounded supporting actors that upend the "faceless squad of men" conventions of most war movies. I sometimes hear movies described as "haunting", but this was the first time I truly felt it. I was a bit shaken after my viewing, the ghosts of the past staring me in the face. As it happened, I got into a conversation with a pair or elderly women in the theater lobby afterward who were eager to hear my thoughts on what we just saw, and it helped me work through all the emotions that this work of art brought to the surface.

That wasn't the only film from France to effectively deal with the trauma of war, as I also viewed and throughly enjoyed the suspense/thriller Disorder. Matthias Schoenaerts stars as Vincent, an Afghanistan war veteran with PTSD who takes up a job as a bodyguard for the wealthy elite. When a client leaves his wife and child under Vincent's care, the pressure starts to mount as he becomes increasingly paranoid, uncertain if he is under the thumb of a larger conspiracy or if it's simply the demons of the past playing with his deteriorating mind. Disorder showcases a terrifically precise and effective manifestation of post-traumatic/combat "jumpiness". There are multiple scenes involving Vincent doing a mundane task in which the framing, pacing and music build up this incredible tension that feels like a bloody murder could happen at any moment. It perfectly captures that sense of being constantly on edge, always on guard and ready to flip the second shit kicks off. This constant build up and comedown is also what makes the few moments when there actually are explosions of violence really work, as you never truly know when they are coming.

Despite those variations, the theme of these war films still remains. The problem that has plagued and will continue to plague war movies is being constantly fixated on one particular POV: war movies are almost always about how killing colored people in foreign countries makes white people feel bad. I worded that not to be glib, but rather to recall the many number of comedians and jokes I've heard that bring the absurdity of this situation to light. In that regard, I also watched a pair of comedies that hinge upon the inherent ridiculousness about stories regarding white people in foreign war torn lands. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is an adaptation of the book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a memoir by American international journalist Kim Barker about her experiences reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tina Fey heads up an overall enjoyable and moving film, although whitewashing and Fey's own recurring issues with White Feminism bring the proceedings down.

On a similar note of adapting real world stories to the screen, I got a chance to catch the new Nicolas Cage vehicle Army Of One. Cage plays Gary Faulkner, an ex-con, unemployed handyman, and modern-day Don Quixote who receives a vision from God (Russell Brand) telling him to capture Osama bin Laden. Armed with only a single sword purchased from a home shopping network, Faulkner travels to Pakistan to complete his mission. Weirdly enough, this movie isn't nearly as bizarre as it should be, but it is a fun time at the movies nonetheless. Cage revels in the craziness of the role, though I found that its best moments were actually in the several interactions Gary has with everyday folk he encounters on his quest. The conversations between the sports store clerk, an affable stoner, and a put-upon patrol woman highlight the true absurdity - and admirable intestinal fortitude, to be absolutely fair - of a man who actually gets off his ass and commits to the right wing armchair general fantasy of saving the country singlehandedly, where all the military might and political pressure of the nation had failed up to that point.

One thing regarding war movies that I like to advocate for is the expansion of the kinds of movies that genre title entails. Last year, I made a case for Beasts Of No Nation as a war film, in that it captures the experience of combat PTSD as well as any bombastic American action film. This year, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the Iranian horror film Under the Shadow left an equally strong impression on me. The film revolves around a mother and daughter struggling to cope with the terrors of the post-revolution, war-torn Tehran of the 1980s. As the stress begins to mount, the pair fall victim to a mysterious evil that begins to haunt their home. I've seen a couple comments proclaiming it to be “the Iranian Babadook,” and while there certainly are some narrative and thematic correlations, I would actually say it's more akin spiritually to something like Jacob's Ladder. Under the Shadow is an excellent and seldom seen look at the innocent victims of conflict, rather than the soldiers who engage in it (with extra points for a glimpse into the Iran-Iraq war that is practically non-existent in western films). There are moments showing the physical damage done, but the movie focuses much more on the deep psychological scars caused by the unending sense of dread that comes with living under constant fear of instant, horrible death within your own home.

In another film that I hope expands the lexicon of war films, a movie dealing with both the psychological and emotional scars of war at home is Little Sister, which frames its powerful and moving exploration of PTSD within the context of a quirky indie comedy. Addison Timlin is Colleen, a young woman who became estranged from her family and ended up at a convent as a young nun in training. She gets word from her mother (Ally Sheedy) that her brother has finally returned home, horribly disfigured from an injury in Iraq, and resolves to head back home to see him and hopefully make things right with her family. Little Sister very much focuses on the process of healing and how friends and family can be integral to that process. While I wouldn't say I have been estranged from my family, I did have very little contact with them during my time overseas. As time went on, however, I realized that making the attempt to re-establish those strong bonds was just as important to my well-being as any other medical or therapeutic procedure. Moreover, learning about how each of my family members had harsh struggles of their own provided for a new dimension in finding common ground, and slowly but surely this has helped us take steps in mending wounds we inflicted upon each other in the past.

I know a lot of you are feeling anxious, afraid and unnerved by recent political events. I was faced with a fair amount of uncertainty leaving the service, and now facing a future with a wild card president elect who enjoys support from fringe elements and hate groups is even more unsettling. I had thought that after these twelve long years, I might be able to finally relax, but now it seems that this has merely been a change in mission. In my lifetime, I have survived the crack epidemic, gang violence, 9/11, two tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan. These next four years may be my biggest challenge yet, but It would appear that my experiences in crisis and calamity have prepared me to face the future. I have done my duty as a service member, but now my true patriotic duty as an exemplary citizen of this nation begins. I voted for the first time in my life this year in the presidential election, and while my choice was not successful, it marks but the first step of many in civil service and community action. My fellow Birth.Movies.Death. colleagues have heeded that call to action as well, and have already shared their thoughts about healing and a way forward in other pieces on this site. This piece you are reading now is my step towards that same end.

Even with all this uncertainty, I still have been fortunate enough to find a modicum of peace back home in NYC with my lovely wife, as well as steady employment with an incredible and unique company. For those who may still not be aware, I have found employment at the newly established Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn. It's not like anything I've ever seen, and I am honored and humbled by the brilliant founder Tim League and his staff who have put their faith in me twice over as a representative of his vision in writing and now in person. I will confess to you all, fellow writers and readers, that I had been reluctant/had some trepidation about writing in an increased capacity for this website. The loss of our former editor-in-chief was a significant professional/emotional blow, and I also had severe anxiety about focusing my full and undivided attention towards the Brooklyn Drafthouse experience, fearful that all my military trade and skill would not prepare me for the civilian workforce. Thankfully, the Alamo team has stepped up on all fronts, from the addition of new insightful writers to the seasoned and experienced management at my new employment. As such, I want to renew my vows and reaffirm my commitment to you all. I want to continue to be a part of this community for as long as you will have me, and if there is a demand from you all for my thoughts, I will keep writing for as long as you keep reading. Reach out to me in the comments, online via social media, and now one-on-one in person at the Drafthouse if you so choose. I have been blessed to meet a number of you in real life recently, and I hope to meet many more.

Thank you to all the people at home and abroad for your support all these years, and thank you to my fellow veterans, former and current service members for all that you have done. Peace.

Comments