Last Flag Flying

Directed by Golden Globe-winning director Richard Linklater who is best known for the Academy Award-winning 2014 movie Boyhood and 1993’s Dazed and Confused, Last Flag Flying is a well-crafted and very human film that explores grief and war with powerful moments of raw emotion and levity brought to life by the extremely talented cast. Steve Carell plays former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd who reunites with former Marines Sal Nealon, played by Bryan Cranston, and Richard Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne, after he learns his son was killed in Iraq serving as a Marine. Clearly broken by the Vietnam War and the recent passing of his wife and now son, Doc contacts the two other men that he served with decades prior in Vietnam as a means of coping with the profound grief of losing his son to war. We first meet the rambunctious and wisecracking Sal overseeing his dive bar and then the soft-spoken and reformed Mueller presiding over his congregation as a Baptist minister. Eventually, Doc persuades the two very different men to pick up his son’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and take him back home in New Hampshire to be buried instead of Arlington National Cemetery. Over the course of the journey, the middle-aged men reminisce about their time as soldiers in the Vietnam War and try to rectify their prior sins. Underscoring the mixed human emotions experienced in one’s life, the characters, especially the irreverent Sal, share several moments of laughter and bonding time on their road trip despite the extremely depressing circumstances. They also grapple with their patriotism and pride of serving in the military at the same time that they disagree with the American government’s decisions to go to war in Vietnam and now Iraq. The movie works so well because of the very real chemistry that can be felt between all three brilliant actors who bring a certain level of humanity to what most people would expect to be just a sad and grim story about a father grieving over his son’s death. Overall, I found it to be an exceptional film that is both bittersweet and hopeful and provides important insights into the complexities of losing a loved one and the human toll caused by war, complete with heartwarming and heartwrenching moments. 

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Thank You For Your Service

Directed by Jason Hall who is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of 2014’s American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service is a powerful film that takes a raw unflinching into the life of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being deployed and its effects on their lives back home. Based on true life stories, the movie follows three recently deployed soldiers in Iraq who have returned home but with horrific emotional scars. The main character Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, played terrifically by Miles Teller, tries to be the good soldier and hide his emotional distress from his loving wife, played by Haley Bennett, and their two young kids. Although broken himself, he becomes the core emotional support for two other soldiers from the same unit who are suffering much more visibly. American Samoa-born Specialist Tausolo Aieti, played by Beulah Koale, has a particularly challenging time acclimating to civilian life and the news that his wife is pregnant with their first child. He suffered traumatic brain injury after withstanding several bomb blasts while on tour in Iraq. Along with Schumann, he tries to get help from the VA but discovers that receiving medical attention is a much more complicated and lengthy process due to the backlog and bureaucracy of the VA. They are particularly desperate to receive help after helplessly witnessing the rapid downward spiral of the other soldier that returned home with them, Billy Waller, played by Joe Cole. His tragic mental breakdown is accelerated after learning that his fiance has left him when he was deployed. As he tries to alleviate the other soldiers’ suffering, Schumann must grapple with his nightmarish flashbacks and guilt over possibly causing additional harm to a soldier with a grave head injury after an accident while trying to save his life. Eventually, Schumann realizes he also must face his own mental health issues caused by PTSD since his marriage is strained and his depression could lead to suicidal thoughts. Unlike most other movies dealing with war, the film is effectively able to focus on the often overlooked and stigmatized effects that war has on soldiers, especially debilitating mental health problems and PTSD. Yes, it is heartbreakingly depressing watching the movie but, I feel, that everyone should see it as it relays such an important message about soldiers and veterans. It vividly reveals how many of them are suffering without insufficient help from the overburdened and underfunded VA. The filmmaker puts faces to the truly shocking statistics about the increasingly large number of soldiers and veterans suffering from mental health illnesses and committing suicide. Overall, I found it to be a highly evocative movie that is sometimes depressing and anger-inducing about such an important issue as PTSD and whose stories are brought to life as a result of the brilliant acting performances. 

Dunkirk

Written and directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan who is best known for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2010’s Inception, Dunkirk is a top-notch war movie crafted by Nolan at his finest and joints the ranks of the greatest war films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 modern classic Saving Private Ryan. The remarkable true story chronicles one of the most pivotal moments of World War II: the British surrender and massive evacuation at Dunkirk, France beginning in late May and ending in early June of 1940. Up to 400,000 mostly British soldiers representing almost the entirety of the British military were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no real way of crossing the English Channel and reaching home even though it was within sight across the shore. With outstanding cinematography, greatly enhanced by the all-encompassing IMAX 70mm format, the film uses spectacular and often horrifying imagery to follow all the major aspects of the massive operation led by the British Commander Bolton, played by the Oscar-nominated actor Kenneth Branagh. The wide sweeping shots of the thousands upon thousands of war-weary soldiers waiting to be rescued while being constantly bombarded by the German air force reinforce the unbelievable scope of the evacuation. There are also mesmerizing dogfighting sequences between the strained British Royal Air Force, represented by a particularly heroic pilot played by Tom Hardy, and German warplanes and bombers targeting the vulnerable British troops. Further underscoring the horrors of war and the difficulty of evacuating so many men are the scenes showing jubilant soldiers finally getting on British Naval vessels after surviving the battle, only to be killed after many of their ships are torpedoed or bombed by the Germans. Throughout the film, Nolan is able to effectively recreate what it must have been like at Dunkirk and thereby engenders an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. The visceral reaction is not only created by the stunning visuals but also by the simple yet effectual soundtrack, which is mostly composed of what sounds like a ticking clock to heighten the nerve-wracking situations the characters are facing. Besides speaking to the hell that is war, the film also presents the hopeful and inspirational aspect of the evacuation of Dunkirk: the massive flotilla of ordinary Brits using their fishing and pleasure boats who journey to Dunkirk in the face of danger to help evacuate the many thousands of soldiers and bring them back home safely. To develop a personal connection with these unlikely heroes, the film also follows a father, played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, and son and a local teenager as they venture their way on their civilian boat to pick up survivors from Dunkirk. They themselves face the harsh reality of warfare when they rescue a severely shell-shocked soldier, played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is adamant that he must not return to Dunkirk. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing and emotionally powerful depictions of war and was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece from the auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His remarkable attention to detail and beautiful cinematography is probably the closest a filmgoer can get to experiencing war, both the horrific and inspirational qualities. The uplifting moments appeal to what many Brits still affectionately refer to as the Dunkirk spirit, the forces for good during times of adversity.

Megan Levey

Based on an inspirational true story, Megan Leavey is a well-crafted and emotionally powerful movie about war in addition to the bond between humans and animals. In a sublime performance filled with raw emotion, Kate Mara of House of Cards fame plays Megan Leavey, a troubled young woman who decides to join the United States Marine Corps as a way to escape her life. During her time training at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego, she desperately wants to become a Military Police K-9 handler. Eventually, she becomes a corporal and is paired with a difficult-to-control bomb-sniffing military working dog named Rex. Never really having bonded with anyone in her hardship-filled life, Megan quickly develops a close kinship with Rex, especially when they are deployed into combat in war-torn Iraq. First serving in Fallujah in 2005 then Ramadi in 2006, she, as a woman not allowed in combat, and her best friend Rex are mostly posted at checkpoints looking for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) that were wounding and killing so many American and Coalition troops. Everything changes when out on a rare mission outside Ramadi, an IED explodes and injures Megan and Rex. While recovering from her wounds and battling depression caused by PTSD, she is heartbroken to learn that Rex is returning to combat with a different handler and will be labeled unadoptable after his deployment and retirement. Herself retired from the Marines, she fights with her superiors to be able to adopt Rex as her own dog and even finds herself profiled in the media and appealing to Senator Chuck Schumer for support. Megan’s dogged determination shows just how important the human bond can be with animals; she is only able to effectively cope with her PTSD by being with Rex and Rex seems to only be happy with her. The film also shows the emotional impact that war has on people and the chronic PTSD problem among a large portion of war veterans. Overall, I found it to be an excellent movie, complete with a terrific performance from Kate Mara, about the horrors of war that also had a hopeful message about the important relationship between humans and animals. Additionally, I thought the film did an excellent job of shedding light on the mostly overlooked work of military combat dogs and how vital they are to protecting and saving so many soldiers lives.

The Wall

Directed by Doug Liman who directed 2002’s The Bourne Identity and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, The Wall is a gritty psychological war thriller about two American soldiers ambushed and trapped by a mysterious sniper while on a mission by themselves in the Iraqi desert shortly after the Iraq War. Sniper and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews, played by professional wrestler John Cena, and his spotter Sergeant Allen Isaac, played by Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are on a relatively simple scouting operation but are unexpectedly shot at by an unseen sniper while waiting for extraction. Matthews is critically wounded out in the open and Isaac tries to rescue him but is forced to hide behind a crumbling wall after another barrage of sniper fire. Himself slightly injured, Isaac is unable to radio headquarters because their long-distance radio is damaged, but all of a sudden a mysterious voice appears on the two-way radio. Isaac soon learns that the man is an infamous Iraqi civilian sniper nicknamed Juba and is the one who has been shooting at them. With the wall as his only protection, Isaac desperately tries to find Juba’s location while dealing with dehydration and his bleeding leg wound. He becomes increasingly frustrated because Juba continues to try to engage in strangely friendly conversation about Isaac’s life and how the American military is destroying his country. At the end of the movie, it appears Isaac and the now slightly conscious Matthews have a chance to survive, but Juba may still have the upper hand. For a war movie, there are surprisingly few action sequences, and it resembles more of a intimate psychological thriller between two adversaries, Isaac and Juba, in a life-or-death situation. The film reminds me of another movie that I saw recently, 2016’s Mine in which the protagonist is by himself but is trapped by stepping on a landmine and also must deal with the psychological issues of dying in combat alone. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did a good job of presenting a psychological thriller, but the film never fully rises to its potential and is primarily remarkable only for its unique context and wartime setting. 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a rather unique war drama that disappointedly falls short of its lofty ideals and creative story structure. Based on the critically acclaimed 2012 novel written by longtime Dallas resident Ben Fountain, the film follows a young soldier named Billy Lynn, portrayed by Joe Alwyn in his first feature film, who is being celebrated as a hero at a football game in Texas. It largely takes place in real time as Billy and his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad participate in a Thanksgiving Day halftime show for a NFL team clearly based on the Dallas Cowboys. As he is essentially being used as a patriotic prop alongside the pop group Destiny’s Child, he experiences vivid flashbacks to his time serving in the Iraq War where he was credited with saving other soldiers’ lives. The movie juxtaposes the horrors of war felt by many servicemen with the extravagance and frivolity of a highly commercial American sporting event. Although the spectators, including the wealthy team owner who is based on Jerry Jones and played by Steve Martin, speak words of praise for the military, their actions show a deeper cynicism in which soldiers are taken advantage of in pursuit of self-interest. For instance, Martin’s character unabashedly undervalues the soldiers by offering to pay them very little for the rights to their story to be used in a film. Over the course of the movie, Billy also must deal with his distraught sister, played by Kristen Stewart, who urges him to leave the army. By raising such issues, the film conveys the struggles that many in the military experience on a daily life. Unfortunately, the largely lackluster script and contrived acting performances do not do justice to the emotionally powerful source material. Overall, I found it to be a movie full of potential that was never fully able to overcome its shortcomings.