Movies That Do War Justice, According to Veterans

Black Hawk Down Credit: Everett Collection

For the veterans coming home from the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is something of a consensus that their story is underserved — especially by the national media. There is one prominent medium, however, that has been increasing the space it gives to tell war stories: Hollywood. There’s been a very real uptick in both documentaries and feature films — from American Sniper to the forthcoming Sand Castle or Thank You For Your Service — following a period of scattered undertakings in the '00s. To many veterans, even the fictionalized accounts of their heroic efforts can do major justice.

“I think you could say these movies act as a conscience," says Sean McFate, who served in the Army as a paratrooper before moving into the private military sector. "It is a place for the country to come to terms with how they feel about it.” McFate, who wrote Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel based on his own experiences adds that in theory the dramatizations could be more revealing than imagined. “And in some of these cases the element of fiction can help in telling a closer truth in situations where a point-by-point retelling wouldn’t be feasible. Whether because of confidentiality restraints and that sense of duty to our commanders.”

That's not to say Hollywood’s embellishments are all taken in stride. Just look to Oscar winner The Hurt Locker, which ignited a firestorm of criticism from former Explosive Ordinance Disposal techs who found it preposterous to imagine someone operating as reckless as the movie’s protagonist Sgt. Williams James. The more recent 13 Hours also took some heat when one of the critical moments in the film, the security team receiving an order to “stand down,” was disputed by the CIA base chief in charge during the time of the actual events in Benghazi. “Sometimes it seems like Hollywood is more worried about their movies looking cool or ‘badass’ than presenting the material with the high standard of realism it deserves,” says ex-Army Ranger Michael Baumgarten. These movies, recommended to us by veterans, come close to meeting those standards.

Lone Survivor [2013]

Marcus Luttrell and his team set out on a mission to capture or kill notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, in late June 2005. Marcus and his team are left to fight for their lives in one of the most valiant efforts of modern warfare.

“I was very compelled watching Marcus’ story in Lone Survivor, and understanding what he must have gone through with the loss of his brothers in the field,” says Assal Ravandi, a former U.S. Army Intelligence Analyst and founder of Mission Complete. “It was particularly impactful in the way it portrayed the interplay between the soldiers on the ground and the officers back in the base who were trying to lead them the right way. The voice over of his inner monologue is truly moving.”

Black Hawk Down [2001]

One-hundred, twenty-three elite U.S. soldiers drop into Somalia to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord and find themselves in a desperate battle with a large force of heavily armed Somalis.

“I think that Black Hawk Down showcases the essence of ‘adapt and overcome,’ something we did on a regular basis in the service,” says Tom Voss, a U.S. Army veteran who has his own documentary, Almost Sunrise, coming out this year. “You start with a plan, and most times that plan does not go as anticipated. The movie shows the strength of the men who did what they needed to do to get the job done, however daunting the task at hand was. Other films glamorize what it's like to be in battle, but I believe this film is really spot-on with the chaos of war. It is not pretty."

Jarhead [2005]

A psychological study of operations desert shield and desert storm during the gulf war, through the eyes of a U.S. marine sniper who struggles to cope with the possibility that his girlfriend may be cheating on him back home.

Jarhead does well in establishing how much it sucks to be deployed,” says Baumgarten. “I think it helps people understand what it is like to have everything at home progressing as if you had never existed at all. It shows how you are in this liminal space between worlds.“

Restrepo [2010]

Documentary following one platoon for a year in the deadliest valley in Afghanistan.

“There are a lot of excellent war documentaries, but I think Restrepo did one of the best jobs of showing war beyond the battle,” says Anthony Anderson, a U.S. Army veteran. “It shows how it can separate a soldier from family and friends, leaving their world in chaos and heartache. I really appreciated the candor in which the soldiers spoke about their experiences.

American Sniper [2014]

Navy S.E.A.L. sniper Chris Kyle's pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that he can't leave the war behind.

American Sniper does not much address the overall complexity of the larger political issues surrounding the war, or the complexity of the Iraqi side of the experience, and that’s okay,” says Paul Rieckhoff, an U.S. Army veteran and CEO of IAVA. “Bradley Cooper is the backbone of it all, delivering a defining performance of our time. He miraculously transformed himself into the real-life superhero that was Chris Kyle.”

Zero Dark Thirty [2012]

A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L.s Team 6 in May 2011.

“I believe the movie does a great job of portraying the risks and the realities of the way our country operates in those situations,” says McFate. “Though it does come off a little flag-waving, and some of the bigger ethical questions aren’t asked, it’s entertaining to watch. Tactically the take down of bin Laden’s Abbottabad was pretty right, despite a few elements being added.”