America has been at war for over a decade. In that time, Hollywood has managed to make only three films worthy of the people who do our fighting—The Hurt Locker, Lone Survivor, and Fort Bliss. In one way or another, all three stood apart from mainstream Tinseltown. They reached the big screen more because of the passion and vision of the filmmakers than the Hollywood suits who usually pick and choose what gets released to the corner cinema.
Take the The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s story tracing the harrowing experiences of a three-man bomb disposal squad in Iraq. Big studios were not that interested in it. As Bigelow noted in a 2009 New York Times interview, “I’ve never made a studio film.” But audiences loved this movie. The Hurt Locker won the Best Picture Oscar in 2008.
Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013) performed equally well at the box office, but was snubbed by Oscar. Although Berg has made his share of standard Hollywood fare, this film was anything but mainstream cinema. The director struggled to find support and financing to bring the story of an ill-fated Special Operations mission in Afghanistan to the screen. “Nobody puts a gun to your head and makes you do something,” Berg said in one interview, “It’s just better when you care.” Audiences cared. It was one of the highest-grossing films of the year.
Less well-known is Claudia Myers’ Fort Bliss. It recently opened with only a very limited theatrical release. The movie follows an Army medic—a single mom who returns home and struggles to reconnect with her young son only to be confronted with the possibility of being deployed once again.
In addition to the fierce commitment of their creators, the films have something else in common. They are all small movies about long, difficult wars. Yet each is virtually devoid of the politics of war. They aren’t films for the right wing or the left wing. They are smart enough to recognize that, for the people who fight our wars, politics are left at the war’s edge. It is not possible to make an authentic American war film and wrap it in a political agenda.
Further, each of these movies could have been transported to any American war, and the stories would have worked just as well. They each focus on the quintessential and timeless experience of Americans at war. They are studies rooted in why we fight and the impact that service has as it ripples through the lives of men and women in uniform and their families.
Finally, these films portray completely realistic experiences of war and its aftermath. Lone Survivor is based on the true-life events of Operation Red Wings, though there are some less-than-historical embellishments. The Hurt Locker and Fort Bliss are fiction. That said, any veteran would tell you that everything in these films happened to them or someone they knew. In all three films, the actors talk, fight, act and look like the people that really do our fighting.
Of the three, Fort Bliss may be the most important for Americans to see because it shows a side of military life most know little about: what it is like to come back from battle.
It also treats the question of “why we fight” with exceptional thoughtfulness. The answer to that question is simple, but complicated. In part, Americans serve because we like work and we like to be good at what we do. That is certainly reflected in the main character, Staff Sergeant Maggie Swann (Michelle Monaghan). In action, she is a tough, no-nonsense professional. A strong and effective leader, Swann takes pride in her job.
Soldiers also fight because of other soldiers. Comradeship is more powerful than bombs and bullets on a battlefield. People perform in combat because they know that is what their peers expect of them. Peer pressure in a deployed military unit is palpable. The film is extraordinary in portraying this “band of brothers” mentality without being sentimental or cartoonish.
Our men and women in uniform also serve because they believe in service. It is a quiet patriotism. On occasion, they may mouth the bumper stickers like “making the world safe for democracy,” but these rallying cries don’t really capture what motivates most of them. They find nobility in serving others. It is that profound and that simple.
Scientists and scholars can debate endlessly which of these really matters. Having served with soldiers for decades, I don’t think they could really parse the importance of what motivates them. They serve because it feels right.
At one point in Fort Bliss, Sergeant Swann argues with her ex-husband that she has to stay in the military. Otherwise, she says, there would be no health insurance for their little boy. It’s certainly true that financial considerations weigh on soldiers’ propensity to serve. But that’s true for any of us—soldier or civilian. And, the reality is that the soldiers of this war, though they receive pay, are all volunteers. Most of them are just like Sergeant Swann: talented, committed people who could find another way to make a buck if they wanted. The paycheck is the last thing they think about when they are in harm’s way.
The second reason to see this film is to watch Sergeant Swann’s heartbreaking struggle to bridge the worlds of service and family. The results are messy. That could not be more true to life.
Michelle Monaghan is another motivation for seeing this movie. As one reviewer rightly noted, “The character of Swann is, in many ways, complicated, flawed and unlikable.” And Monaghan delivers a performance that comes across as one-thousand-percent genuine.
She is a perfect actress in a perfect movie about living in an imperfect world. Real American military life is tragedy, disappointment, controversy, joy, hope, freedom, pride, and uncertain, fateful choices all in one rush.
Myer’s movie offers a satisfying completion of the Long War Trilogy started by The Hurt Locker and Lone Survivor. It would be a shame if Fort Bliss isn’t given the opportunity to reach a bigger audience.