Today is Veterans Day in the United States, annually recognized on November 11th -- in honor of the signing of the armistice which ended WWI hostilities between the Allied nations and Germany in 1918.
The United States previously celebrated “Armistice Day” and it was more a day of recognition to honor veterans that died during WWI. In 1945 a WWII veteran named Raymond Weeks led a delegation to President Eisenhower and proposed the idea to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans and not just those who died in WWI.
Eisenhower supported the idea of a national veterans day but it wasn’t until 1954 that he signed a bill into law and shortly there after, Congress amended the bill to replace, “Armistice” day with a national “Veterans” day celebrating all veterans. It has been celebrated as Veterans Day ever since.
Hollywood has long been enamored with war movies and there are far too many movies that do little more than exploit the deaths of soldiers in the name of movie excitement “fun.” Thankfully, there are also movies that attempt to recreate a soldier’s authentic experience and the toll such service, and war in general, has on soldier families and humanity.
Two feature films and two documentaries about war, exploring themes of loneliness, trauma, loss and hope.
Born on the 4th of July (1989): U.S. Marine veteran Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) returns from Vietnam paralyzed from the mid chest down and is wheelchair bound for the rest of his life. The movie is based on Kovic’s autobiography and directed by Vietnam vet Oliver Stone. The first third of the film follows Kovic from childhood to enlistment to boot camp and into the vietnam war where, during a firefight with the enemy, he accidentally kills one of the men in his platoon. He is shortly there after wounded and paralyzed but comes home seemingly optimistic. The remainder of the film focuses on his PTSD and war trauma as Kovic becomes increasingly disillusioned with traditional patriotism until eventually becoming an anti-war activist 9much to the hatred of his fellow soldiers). Olive Stone read Kovic’s autobiography and was shocked to learn what Kovic had gone through and immediately purchased the rights to the book. Stone and Kovic met many times to discuss their experiences in Vietnam and eventually collaborated together to write the screenplay. The film was wildly successful and earned several Academy Award nominations.
Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994): This Academy Award winning documentary profiles the career of US artist & Chinese immigrant Maya Lin, when, at the age of 21 she beat out more than a 1000 artists in a competition to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The documentary is short (a little over an hour) and chronicles her childhood and about ten years of her work before receiving the memorial contract. Lin was under extraordinary pressure to deliver and because she was a woman, and Asian, she was often overly critiqued and vilified. Lin herself comes off as soft spoken, a woman who chooses her words carefully but also, a bit distant -- like many an artist I know. As a production note -- the film is a product of its time and is therefore a bit slow paced even with its short run but is still well worth viewing. Despite the hardship Lin faced during the creation of the monument, today it is widely recognized as a magnificent and powerful piece of art.
The Men (1950): Perhaps one of the first Hollywood films to focus on the life of a wounded soldier in a completely unsensational way. Very little screen time is given to war instead offering enormous time to focus on Ken (Marlon Brando) and his struggle as he is consumed with anger and self-pity. While this movie was not a commercial success, its themes will always remain relevant. As a production note -- This is Marlon Brando’s feature film debut.
Restrepo (2010): A documentary film that chronicles the lives of the men of Second Platoon, Battle Company in a valley in eastern Afghanistan. The Restrepo post -- named so after a fallen comrade (PFC Juan Sebastian Restrepo), was considered one of the most dangerous postings in the U.S. Military. The goal of the post was to clear the Korengal Valley of insurgency and gain the trust of the local populace. Nothing went according to plan. Two journalists, British photographer Tim Hetherington, and journalist Sebastian Junger spent one year with the platoon in the Korengal Valley. This film is truly one of the greatest depictions of the soldier bond and camaraderie between them while at times offering gut wrenching footage of tense combat. The late Roger Ebert wrote in his four star review of the film, “The location footage is intercut with debriefings of the survivors conducted soon after they've been flown out to Italy. They use understatement to express strong emotions. The deaths of men they fought with are almost impossible for them to speak of … The film is nonpolitical. It was filmed at great personal risk by the war photographer Tim Hetherington and the author Sebastian Junger. It raises for me an obvious question: How can this war possibly be won?” Tragically, a few years after completion of the documentary, photographer Tim Hetherington, while covering the 2011 Libyan civil war, is killed by mortar shrapnel.
* Born on the Fourth of July is a 1989 American biographical war drama film directed by Oliver Stone based on the best-selling autobiography Born on the Fourth of July by Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic. Nominated for numerous critical awards and several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Tom Cruise) and winner of two Oscars for Best Director (Oliver Stone) and Best Film Editing (David Brenner and Joe Hutshing).
* The Men is a 1950 American drama film directed by Fred Zinnemann, written by Carl Foreman, and starring Marlon Brando, Teresa Wright and Everett Sloane. Despite the film's commercial failure, it marked Brando’s film debut.
* Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision is a 1994 documentary film made by Freida Lee Mock about the life of American artist Maya Lin, whose best-known work is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The film won the 1994 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
* Restrepo is a 2010 American documentary film about the Afghanistan war, directed by American journalist Sebastian Junger and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.