Original photo by Wilson Webb

The New War Movies Aren’t About War at All

‘Last Flag Flying’ is the latest to take place everywhere but on the battlefield

When we think of war movies, our mind tends to go to Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan or Dunkirk—films in which the action revolves around the madness and violence of the battlefield. After all, these movies are about war, so it stands to reason that they ought to fill the screen with imagery of men with guns in foxholes or hotshot pilots buzzing through the sky. But there’s always been another kind of war movie that’s run parallel to that one. And in the last 10 years, it’s been more prominent and, arguably, more meaningful in terms of capturing the impact that armed conflict has on people. Perhaps not surprisingly then, such films have often focused on the war we’re still engaged in — the second Iraq War.

Yes, the Iraq War is still going on, although nobody talks about it much anymore.

Begun in 2003 with the optimistically marketed “Shock and Awe” campaign, the conflict officially ended in 2011, although we still have troops in the country. (How many? The Trump administration won’t say; although Trump bragged in March, “We’re doing very well in Iraq,” and insisted that “our soldiers are fighting like never before.”) Hollywood has made traditional anti-war movies about Iraq, most notably the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker, but those have been outnumbered by films such as Taking Chance, The Messenger, Thank You for Your Service and this weekend’s Last Flag Flying, where actual warfare barely factors into the plot. Rather than rehashing the familiar tropes and narrative clichés of bygone war movies, most of the Iraq War films talk about the conflict from the intimate perspective of the people back home.

The Iraq War isn’t the first time filmmakers have focused on what happens to soldiers away from the battlefield. 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives—which, like The Hurt Locker, won Best Picture—looked at soldiers trying to adjust to civilian life after serving in World War II. In subsequent years, movies like Coming Home and In Country also have chronicled the lingering emotional and mental pain that veterans carry with them. But the power that a movie like Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying has is its insistence that we notice the unheralded world of the military in our everyday lives without ever realizing it.

A sequel to the 1973 Jack Nicholson comedy-drama The Last Detail, about two Marines taking a third to prison after being convicted of theft, Last Flag Flying stars Bryan Cranston in the Nicholson role, playing Sal Nealon, who reunites with his former mates Doc (Steve Carell) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) when Doc has to arrange transport of his son’s body to its burial. The film is set in the early stages of “Shock and Awe,” during which Doc’s son has been killed. Linklater never shows any battle scenes, but he does spend time explaining precisely how the corpse of a soldier is handled once it returns to the States.

Utterly stripped down and lacking in flash, Last Flag Flying walks us and Doc through the process: how the soldiers they meet won’t give details of his son’s death; what happens if Doc refuses to let the military bury him in Arlington; and how the burial ceremony is performed. Linklater means to critique the military’s bureaucracy — showing how the government favors pageantry over actual compassion — but his matter-of-fact approach also never lets us forget about the dead soldier at the story’s center, constantly questioning why this young man had to die.

The strategy mirrors one of the best non-war Iraq War films to date, the 2009 HBO drama Taking Chance, which is based on a true story and stars Kevin Bacon as Michael Strobl, a Marine stationed stateside who volunteers to escort the body of soldier Chance Phelps to his Wyoming hometown for burial. Running only 77 minutes, Taking Chance doesn’t have much of a plot and no grand twists — it simply observes as Strobl goes about the minutiae of preparing for a military burial, including interacting with TSA agents, funeral directors and Phelps’ family. It’s a film about process — the nuts and bolts of planning a solemn, tightly choreographed occasion — and Taking Chance’s respectful, muted tone honors a soldier’s sacrifice as it acknowledges all the small-town American communities where military service is commonplace.

Because the movie isn’t manipulative, it’s incredibly emotional, achieving what director Ross Katz set out to convey. In an interview with L.A. Weekly, he explained that he was drawn to the material because he felt, as the Iraq War rolled on, that he’d gone numb to the casualties. “I turned on CNN and yet another roadside bomb had ripped through yet another Baghdad market, and I sat there and I didn’t feel anything,” he said. “I was extremely angry with myself, because I thought, intellectually I know how tragic this is, but I don’t feel anything. … I walked out on the street and life was just normal. I thought, there’s a parent who just got a knock on the door, and why does everything look the same? It just didn’t add up to me.”

That need to personalize such tragic statistics also informed another tremendous 2009 drama, The Messenger. A traditional war film like Saving Private Ryan will occasionally have a scene where stone-faced military men arrive at the house of a family who lost a son to deliver the terrible news. But The Messenger made that scene its entire story, casting Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster as Army soldiers who have to tell the deceased’s loved ones what has happened. The array of different reactions they encounter on their assignments is remarkable — some are angry, some are inconsolable, some will occasionally tell Harrelson and Foster that they feel bad for them having to be the harbinger of bad news. But each and every death stings, even though we’ve never met any of the dead soldiers. If anything, gory combat scenes are unnecessary to sell us on the fact that war is hell — a crying mother or wife is crushing enough.

Almost by design, these movies feel as though they’re trying to fly under the radar, telling their small stories with minimal fuss. That’s especially true of last month’s Thank You for Your Service, another true story, which starred Miles Teller as an Iraq vet who returns to his Kansas community, left to battle PTSD and a local Veterans Affairs office that’s overloaded with patients and lacks the staff to help them all.

The film, written and directed by Jason Hall (who wrote the screenplay for a more combat-heavy Iraq War film, American Sniper), does offer flashbacks of Teller and his squad’s time in Iraq, showing some of the carnage and confusion that’s prevalent in the fog of war. But most of Thank You for Your Service takes place in Kansas, and the very absence of war proves to be its own hell for these soldiers. Their psyches shattered, they can’t cope with the general calm of American suburban life, turning to crime, violent videogames and even suicide to quiet the demons in their head.

Whether it’s The Best Years of Our Lives, The Hurt Locker or American Sniper, audiences have become accustomed to how difficult the transition from soldier to citizen can be. But the empathy Teller brings to his role makes it hard to complain about the story’s familiarity. Sure, we already know that veterans have a tough time — but I’d rather be constantly reminded of it then sit through another clichéd combat movie that tries to deny that reality.

In the 14 years since the Iraq War began, there have been other stateside war dramas, like Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah, that chronicle the unimaginable emotional toll of war as it affects families and communities. And it’s worth pointing out that not one of the films I’ve mentioned spends much time considering the incredible loss of life suffered by Iraqis. But these non-war Iraq War movies aren’t so much interested in revisiting the foolish choices that got us into Iraq — they’d rather look at the grunts and low-level officers who just do their jobs with such precision and commitment that it’s even more offensive that they’ve died or been damaged for no good reason.

Not that American audiences are ready for these movies. Excluding Taking Chance, which was on HBO, The Messenger didn’t turn a profit, Thank You for Your Service tanked and it’s unlikely Last Flag Flying will do much business. And while admittedly all of them are far from perfect — their modesty can sometimes underscore their creative limitations — they feel significant as a means to grapple with a war we can’t seem to escape but which we’ve become accustomed to tuning out.

It’s the sad irony of these movies: They’re about veterans we ignore from a war we’ve forgotten in stories we’d prefer to skip.