Memorial Day, a national holiday celebrated on Monday, is about remembering those who have paid the ultimate price for freedom, country — and a uniform very few citizens these days volunteer to wear.
Films on the big screen have the ability to bring us into different worlds, to open our eyes to things happening around us — which we might otherwise not see.
Movies have been an invaluable tool in telling the stories of veterans of every war and in capturing their struggles, sacrifices and accomplishments.
Here’s a look at five films that perfectly touch on exactly what Memorial Day is all about.
Maybe some of your favorites are here — or maybe it’s time to discover new ones.
1.) “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006). Clint Eastwood’s thoughtful movie about the service and sacrifice of the Greatest Generation didn’t get much box-office attention when it was first released. Perhaps people expected something flashier. Except for an opening that was nearly as thrilling as that of “Saving Private Ryan,” “Flags” mostly takes place stateside.
It follows three characters who struggle with being away from the war — and from being called “heroes” who are thrust into the spotlight. Eastwood, an Army veteran himself, directs with a quiet but moving and realistic touch that sets “Flags” apart from other military films.
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The movie captures the gap between civilian and veteran that still exists today — and its closing moments express what so many men and women who have served feel but find difficult to express to family and friends who don’t know a thing about the military.
2.) “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Few military movies are as beloved as “Saving Private Ryan.” The opening sequence is one of the best and most thrilling ever put to film. Director Steven Spielberg follows his characters as they race to the beaches of Omaha during the Normandy invasion in World War II — and it feels about as close to the real thing as a filmmaker can get without being there.
The storyline of “Ryan” has always been a little kooky. A platoon is sent on a mission to find a Pvt. Ryan and bring him home, since he’s the last surviving son of a mother of four. Tom Hanks’ performance is sharp and surprisingly profound, even for him. It’s a thrilling movie that ends with a soldier looking at the names of men he once knew at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Normandy, France. In those final moments, the sacrifice of everything we’ve seen before comes together — and Spielberg helps us understand the depths to which servicemen and women are willing to go while in uniform.
3.) “American Sniper” (2014). Late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was still alive when Clint Eastwood was first developing “Sniper” as his next directorial effort. When Kyle passed tragically, the film took on a different meaning. Instead of just being a movie that highlighted arguably the greatest sniper ever to live, it now had to be a film that highlighted a man who did more than most, both at home and during his many deployments overseas.
“Sniper” is a thank-you to Kyle’s service, along with a depiction of his struggles to balance family life with military life. It’s a beautiful meditation on war that equals some of Eastwood’s best work since “Unforgiven.” The film was controversial when released, as many claimed it was pro-war, but that is an oversimplification of a movie that takes us on a journey with a man committed to country who must sacrifice and lose before he can find peace at home. If you don’t have glassy eyes by the time the ending shows footage of Kyle’s actual funeral — then you may want to check and make sure your heart is still beating.
4.) “The Messenger” (2009). This film is difficult to watch. It’s a gripping but emotionally draining experience. Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster lead the film as two very different soldiers assigned the task of informing family members about the deaths overseas of their loved ones.
Both actors commit to their roles, and their dynamic captures something unique not often examined in film. Foster is a hardened veteran with more combat under his belt than most would even like to imagine. Harrelson, on the other hand, is a high-ranking serviceman whose glory days are far behind him. He missed his chance for combat, for glory — and that eats at him, almost as much as Foster’s regret and history eat at him.
It’s not a celebratory movie, but rather a somber look at one of the realities of war we don’t like to think about — yet days like Memorial Day force us to do just that. Foster and Harrelson are brilliant and draw viewers into an unforgettable journey.
5.) “Lone Survivor” (2013). This film, like the book it’s based on, is a testament to the sacrifice and strength of those we have lost in the wars in the Middle East. Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the lone survivor in question (and author of the book), was a close consultant on the movie and made sure it had a level of realism few military films possess.
Pundits used the film — as they did with “Sniper” — as a platform to make political points and said the story glorified war, while nothing could be further from the truth. Luttrell even addressed the criticisms in an interview with Megyn Kelly (then of Fox News) while the movie was in release.
“There’s nothing glorious about war,” he said. “There’s nothing glorious about holding your friends in your arms and watching them die. There’s nothing glorious about having to leave your home for six to eight months while your family’s back here and you’re away.”
He continued, “Bottom line is that there [are] bad people everywhere. And every now and again we are going to have to step to them to make sure that we preserve our way of life … It’s people like my teammates and I that have to do that, and the men and women in the military. But there’s nothing glorious about it, there’s nothing pro-war — nobody wants war. It’s the most horrible thing in the world.”
This piece appeared earlier in LifeZette and has been updated.