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Cinema of the Unknown Soldier

How war movies got small

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Last Christmas, I gave my eleven-year-old son a book whose violent content disturbed me slightly but that, at his age, I knew I would have wanted: No Easy Day, an account of the bin Laden raid by one of the Navy SEALs involved in it. I read a few pages before I handed it over and found the prose a bit stilted but still exciting, its pace deliberate, its tone simplistic. I wasn’t sure my son would ever read it—he’s a sports-obsessed, active kid, easily distracted—but when he finished it a few days later, I congratulated myself for pushing it on him, convinced that the process of civilizing young folks means supplying them with heroic stories that attach to larger messages. In this case, the message was: Evil must be defeated, sometimes at night, under highly confusing conditions.

I recently came across this message again, and in a form that convinced me that its essence has less to do with evil than with the triumph over confusion. I was in a movie theater, one of the places I go to leave the world behind and where, not all that long ago, I’d enjoyed a couple of well-made films, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, which also told stories of daring operations in hostile, murky foreign territory. A trailer came on for an upcoming fall feature, Captain Phillips, about a hostage rescue carried out in 2009 by some of the same military assets who would later kill Osama bin Laden. The setting is the pirate-infested seas near Somalia, that realm of chaos, and the star is Tom Hanks, whose casting in a film means that its subject is America itself. When Hanks’s innocent cargo ship is boarded by clamorous, shouting, disheveled-looking hijackers, he quickly adopts a stoic, hard-bitten look and orders his crew to hunker down and fight. Much improvised combat ensues, but in the end, to judge by the trailer, the cavalry arrives in the form of well-equipped commandos who drop in formation out of a dark sky.

If Americans still do something well, these books and movies proclaim, it’s to master small, fluid situations, typically occurring in the Third World, with elegant, disciplined, targeted shows of force augmented by high-tech gear. Against sloppiness, we wield precision. Against low light, we wield expensive goggles. Against excitability, we wield coolness. But those are just our outward, well-known weapons; we also have a secret one. In all the works I’ve cited, there are unarmed types who help win the day—an intelligence analyst, a makeup artist, a seasoned merchant seaman—because they’ve absorbed, as though by dint of citizenship, an amateur knack for steely derring-do.

It wasn’t quite this way when I was young. The war movies that I was raised on celebrated great, concerted military blows administered by masses of humble soldiers against monolithic armies of the misled. I’m thinking of Patton, Midway, The Longest Day, and other epic World War II films that had strongly affected me as a teenage boy, preparing my little soul for mighty conflicts the likes of which would never come again. The low-level soldiers and sailors in these movies were men of good cheer but no special expertise who’d been plucked from ordinary life to enter grinding battle. Their highly regimented enemies were, if anything, better trained than they, the pawns of remote and lordly officers whom they obeyed with feudal submissiveness. We always won in the end, but we won ugly, with populist grit and stubborn cussedness.

Now things are different. In Zero Dark Thirty and, I have a hunch, in Captain Phillips, the elite commandos who rule the night are ninja-like professional warriors dispatched by impossibly lofty Washingtonians who seldom go out to review the troops in person. The CIA director in Zero Dark Thirty, like his executive-branch masters, is a thoroughly office-bound type, well dressed and portly, while the well-muscled troops who do his bidding resemble a pro sports team. Until they’re ordered onto their black helicopters and take up their highly rehearsed roles in the hunt for the world’s most wanted terrorist, they’re not particularly singular beings. Nor are they afterward, come to think of it. They’re militarized athletes, basically, who only come fully to life on game day, when strapped into their gear.

In an era of quagmire and gridlock, when wars are undeclared and never ending and politicians campaign unceasingly for posts that afford them little practical power other than to frustrate one another, the surgical strike conducted by armed tight-ends who get their man and then get out is a deliciously appealing conceit, especially when it has a basis in truth. A nation needs to maintain its self-esteem as well as its sense of its own distinctive character. In the war movies I was raised on, the patriotism had an epic feel, depicting America as a nation of fundamentally peaceable individuals who could be roused, in the right historical circumstances, to pile onto troop ships and jump en masse from planes for a cause beyond themselves. Now, though, the scope of such dramas is much narrower, concentrating on missions instead of causes and depicting the troops not as people but as assets, as skill-sets incarnate molded to their equipment.

One movie I can’t imagine being made now, except by Quentin Tarantino, facetiously, is the stupendously brutal The Dirty Dozen, about a lumpen crew of nonconformists, not a few of them flat lunatics, whose respective pathologies somehow come together to render them a lethal fighting force. The film is a goof, but it has an old-school spirit, asserting that flawed human beings, not weapons and tactics, hold the key to democratic warfare. That’s as romantic a notion, in its way, as the new one, which holds that planning and training are everything when it comes to defeating the enemy, a diffuse and shadowy foe. Luckily for us, we own the night, though. Anonymous, stealthy, and outfitted with goggles that cause nocturnal scenes to luminesce, we go where our remote commanders send us, double-tap the baddies with silenced rifles, and are gone before the dawn, when the real chaos of the world returns.

Walter Kirn is the national correspondent for The New Republic.