Memorial Day is more than the beginning of summer; it is a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I hope you can take some time over the weekend to think of those we have lost. Some movies to pay your respects:
The Outpost was on my top ten list for 2020, a movie that was sadly overlooked because it came out in the early weeks of the pandemic shutdown. It is based on the book by Jake Tapper. There are war stories that are about strategy and courage and triumph over evil that let us channel the heroism of the characters on screen. And then there are war stories that are all of that but also engage in the most visceral terms with questions of purpose and meaning that touch us all. “The Outpost” is that rare film in the second category, an intimate, immersive drama from director Rod Lurie, a West Point graduate and Army veteran who knows this world inside out and brings us from the outside in.
Gardens of Stone James Caan and James Earl Jones star in a film about the 1st Battalion 3d Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) at Fort Myer, Virginia, the U.S. Army’s Honor Guard. They conduct the funerals of fallen soldiers and guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. Francis Ford Coppola directed this touching, elegiac story.
Taking Chance An officer (Kevin Bacon) escorts the body of a young Marine killed in Iraq. Each stop along the way is meaningful.
Mr. Roberts is a WWII story about a Navy cargo ship, based on the experiences of author Thomas Heggen. Henry Fonda stars in the title role or an executive officer who tries to protect the men from a tyrannical captain. Broadway, and the outstanding cast includes William Powell, James Cagney, and Oscar-winner Jack Lemmon.
Rated PG-13 for war-related action/violence and brief strong language
Brief strong language
Extended wartime peril and violence, weapons, explosions, some disturbing images, characters injured and killed
Historical issues, segregated all-male military
Date Released to Theaters:
July 10, 2020
People always remember the wrong part of “The Caine Mutiny.” It’s understandable because Humphrey Bogart is mesmerizing as Captain Queeg, a career officer held in contempt by the junior officer draftees who think he failed so unforgivably in his command that, in this fictional story, there is a mutiny. (In reality, there has never been a mutiny on a US military ship.) One of the most iconic scenes in movie history is when Bogart as Queeg becomes so defensive on the witness stand he undermines his own credibility. Like Jack Nicholson as Colonel Jessup being cross-examined by Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” the short-term smart alecks show up the men who give their lives to the service. But do they? After Queeg decompensates on the witness stand, the mutineers feel vindicated. But the lawyer who argued the case tells them they are wrong. He could have given Nicholson’s speech about those who are smug in the luxury of their principles without having to test them in war. (Of course, SPOILER ALERT Jessup’s actions went far beyond Queeg’s paranoia and poor judgment; there is no possible justification for assaulting a soldier to force him to improve or quit.)
The WWII story “Greyhound,” written by and starring Tom Hanks, is something of a counterweight to those stories. It is based on a book called The Good Shepherd by Horatio Hornblower author C.S. Forester, whose specialty was thrilling naval stories. Hanks plays Captain Ernest Krause, commander of the USS Keeling, known by its callsign Greyhound. Like Queeg and Jessup, Krause was in the Navy before the war. We get a sense that he has been disappointed by not being promoted and perhaps, now that America’s entry into the war has prompted a promotion at last, he may have some doubts about whether he is ready. In a brief and probably unnecessary flashback, we see him propose to his lovely girlfriend, played by the lovelier-than-ever Elisabeth Shue. But she wants to wait. (In Forester’s book, Krause is divorced because his wife could not handle his by-the-book-ishness.). But unlike Jessup and Queeg, Krause is the very model of a decent, honorable, careful, officer. His first thought is for his mission; his second thought is for his men. He never loses sight of the consequences of his actions. As his men rejoice in the sinking of the U-Boat attacking them — “50 less Krauts!” — he says to himself as much as to anyone else, “50 souls.”
Other than that flashback, the quick 90-minute runtime is entirely devoted to a few days as Krause’s destroyer brings cargo ships across the Atlantic so they can deliver critically needed supplies and troops to England. Air cover at the time could not stretch all the way across the ocean, so there was a space in the middle known as the Black Pit. As the movie begins we hear the stirring voice of Winston Churchill describing the “hard unrelenting struggle” of the Atlantic fleet and Franklin Roosevelt, a former Secretary of the Navy, extolling the American spirit: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” “The price of the war has fallen on our sailor men,” we hear. And then we see what that means on Krause’s first crossing.
In addition to the vulnerability of lack of air cover, the equipment they have to work with is endearingly, and horrifyingly basic, analog, almost prehistoric. Their communication with their base is inadequate, even when it works, a critical message arriving two hours too late. The tracking system stops working. On board, Krause gets his intel by voice relay. A sailor has the job of just repeating everything coming from below so he can hear it. A sneeze at the wrong moment can be disastrous. The crew uses grease pencils and protractors. Krause uses binoculars. He uses a pencil-sharpener. They run low on ammo.
As admirable as the movie’s devotion to accuracy is, the tech talk is overwhelming. There’s a lot of “five minutes to course change” and language that is much harder to parse. Much less time is devoted to developing characters other than Krause; he may care a lot about the men but the movie does not seem to. An exception is Rob Morgan, in his third indelible performance of the year so far after “Bull” and “The Photograph.” As a loyal steward in the still-segregated military, he manages to convey infinite dignity and a movie’s worth of back story.
All of the tech talk and even some of the action are a distraction from what the movie is about: risk assessment under the direst circumstances, the responsibility for other people’s lives, both those on board and those they are fighting to protect at home, the wear on the spirit, the resolve to go on. At its foundation, beyond all of the tension and action, this movie is is a continuation of those same issues explored in Hanks’ recent films, especially “Captain Phillips,” “Sully,” and “Bridge of Spies.” Hanks, who often seems to play the role of America’s dad in real life, explores the existential questions that underly all of our choices.
Parents should know that this film includes extended wartime peril and violence, disturbing images, guns, torpedos, explosions, characters injured and killed, and brief strong language. Reflecting the reality of the era, the military is segregated and all-male.
Family discussion: What are some of the biggest differences between the military technology of WWII and today? Which was the most difficult decision Commander Krause had to make? If he had to do it again, what would he do differently?
If you like this, try: “Midway,” “Mr. Roberts,” “Destination Tokyo,” and “Band of Brothers”
Rated R for war violence and grisly images, pervasive language, and sexual references
Constant very strong and crude language
Substance abuse, smoking
Intense wartime peril and violence, very graphic and disturbing images, many characters injured and killed, possible suicide attempt
Date Released to Theaters:
July 3, 2020
There are war stories that are about strategy and courage and triumph over evil that let us channel the heroism of the characters on screen. And then there are war stories that are all of that but also engage in the most visceral terms with questions of purpose and meaning that touch us all. “The Outpost,” based on the book by news correspondent Jake Tapper, is that rare film in the second category, an intimate, immersive drama from director Rod Lurie, a West Point graduate and Army veteran who knows this world inside out and brings us from the outside in.
The script by Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy wisely avoids the usual expository dialogue as a newcomer is introduced to the group. Instead, we get a crisp, military briefing-style scene-setting with on-screen text informing us that the military has set up outposts in areas that are impossible to defend and given the 53 soldiers there the impossible task of both befriending the locals and fighting off the Taliban. This one is Combat Outpost Keating, located in a near-indefensible mountain-enclosed area in Afghanistan 14 miles from the Pakistani border.
Lurie and his cast, including Orlando Bloom, Scott Eastwood, and breakout star Caleb Landry Jones, understand the small revelatory moments, the trash-talk and taunting that is the way people away from home and coping with unendurable uncertainty connect to each other. Then there are the brief calls home when they pretend to be normal and maintain those connections. As a sign nearby reminds them to keep the calls to 10 minutes, one soldier puffs away while assuring his wife that he stopped smoking. A series of new commanding officers each bring his own ideas and style of communication. Over the course of the movie, we see how much we expect from the military, from 21st century warfare to diplomacy. Over the closing credits, we get a devastating reminder of how heartbreakingly young these soldiers are.
There are telling moments in the interactions with the locals. The soldiers do their best to implement the policies they are there to carry out, which means “soft power” like paying them for their people who have been killed as collateral damage or even as enemy or possibly those who are dead by other means but maybe a way to get more money from the Americans. “I will lose my honor with my elders,” one explains via a translator. “I can regain my honor one of two ways. One way is for all of you to lay down your arms and watch as your communities flourish with the help of the US and Allah.” That support comes in the form of “money, contracts, projects.” The other way does not need to be explained to the Afghanis or to us. The outpost also has to develop sources of intelligence in a place where there is no reason for anyone to trust them and they do not speak the language. There is a local version of the boy who cried wolf, constantly warning of an attack but with no useful details. And then there are the attacks, always expected yet always unexpected because they never know when.
Impeccable camerawork from Lorenzo Senatore and editing by Michael J. Duthie give the film a documentary feel matched by understated, natural performances from the cast. We feel their exhaustion. And we feel their dedication, more important even than their training or their courage. Their loyalty to each other in the face of risk so dire the outpost is known as Camp Custer is itself the answer to the question the story raises about purpose, meaning, and why we are here. The question of why we are there it is wise enough not to try to resolve.
Parents should know that this is a war movie with constant, intense, and graphic military and terrorist violence, disturbing images, characters injured and killed, constant very strong and crude language, sexual humor, smoking and substance abuse.
Family discussion: Which was the best commanding officer of the outpost? How do the soldiers manage their stress?
It’s a very different Memorial Day this year, much quieter, with no parades or community picnics. But now more than ever we have reason to show our appreciation for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Some movies to help us pay our respects:
Black Hawk Down: 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.
Glory: The story of the first black regiment to fight in the Civil War, with an Oscar-winning performance by Denzel Washington.
American Sniper Bradley Cooper plays real-life army sniper Chris Kyle, who found his return home a different kind of challenge.
We Were Soldiers: The earliest US involvement in the Vietnam War has Lt. Col. Hal Moore (Mel Gibson) preparing for one of the most violent battles in U.S. history, making a promise to his soldiers and their families: “I will leave no man behind dead or alive. We will all come home together.”
Red Tails: George Lucas directed this story of the multiple medal-awarded Tuskegee Airmen.
Midway: The story of the first major Allied victory of WWII.
The Longest Day: An all-star cast tells the story of the Normandy landing that changed the course of WWII.
Graphic and disturbing images of wartime violence, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, medical issues
Date Released to Theaters:
January 24, 2020
The story of the exceptional valor of Airman 1st Class William H. Pitsenbarger in one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, and the story of the thirty-year effort by the men he saved to see that he received recognition with a posthumus Medal of Honor are plenty dramatic, so it really wasn’t necessary to ramp it up with fictional details about a cover-up. And even an AARP A-list in the cast, including Ed Harris, Christopher Plummer, Diane Ladd, John Savage, Amy Madigan, Samuel L. Jackson and Peter Fonda, each with a chance at a bravura star turn, cannot match the clips over the final credits of the real-life veterans who would not quit until his valor was acknowledged. He ie one of only three Air Force enlisted men to be awarded the Medal of Honor in military history.
So a documentary about what really happened would have been better. Instead we have a diligent, well-intentioned, if overheated story that is as much about the (fictional) Defense Department staffer who was assigned to investigate the application for the Medal of Honor, Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), and the lessons he learned from contact with the honor and courage of Pitsenbarger, his parents (Plummer and Ladd), and the humble but insistent men who would not quit.
The movie goes back and forth between 1966 Vietnam and 1995 Washington DC. In Vietnam, Pitsenbarger was an Air Force pararescueman, not in a combat company himself but part of a team that evacuated wounded soldiers via helicopter. In one of of the bloodiest days of the war (meaning highest US casualty count), when the Americans were being slaughtered, he rescued wounded men at great risk to his own life and then picked up a gun and fought alongside them, until he was shot and killed. These scenes are extremely violent and graphic and often hard to follow, especially since there is no effort to make the younger versions of the characters played by Fonda, Harris, Jackson, and Savage look or sound like their counterparts.
In 1995 Washington, DC, Huffman (a fictional character) is an ambitious Defense Department civilian bureaucrat with a young son and a pregnant wife (neither of whom serve any function in the story except to be adorable and supportive, with one brief pep talk. His career is in jeopardy when the political appointee who serves as Secretary of the Air Force (Linus Roache) announces that he is resigning (and yet somehow still in the job what looks like a year later at the award ceremony but okay). And when he is assigned to develop a record for the medal application, including interviewing eye witnesses and tracking down mysteriously missing paperwork.
None of this is true (and by the way, the wives of the veterans whose lives were saved also played a significant part in getting the medal), but it makes for good drama, giving each of the venerable co-stars a moment suitable for a lifetime achievement clip real. They fall at different points on the range of PTSD, but all of them end up confessing and achieving some kind of catharsis. It is poignant to see the clearly ailing Peter Fonda in his last role as the most fragile of the group. And it is a little bit surreal to see John Savage of “The Deer Hunter” back in Vietnam 42 years later. Not the “Kurtz-ian burnout smoking ganja under a bohdi tree” that Huffman imagined but someone who found peace by bringing peace to others. Ladd’s monologue about sending her teenage son to war is also a highlight, and a welcome reminder that when we say no to sending our children into battle it just means we are sending someone else’s children in their place.
It is artificial and awkward. but thankfully it does not try to make the purpose of Pitsenbarger’s story into a life lesson for a fictional civilian. A moving award ceremony at the end reminds that the purpose of any hero’s story is to give a life lesson to us.
Parensts should know that this movie includes scenes of the Vietnam war with very graphic wartime violence and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, veterans with PTSD, strong language, and smoking.
Family discussion: How did Scott change as he spoke to the veterans? What did he learn about listening from Kepper? What kind of medal would you like to earn?
If you like this, try: “Hacksaw Ridge” and “We Were Soldiers”