Military-Themed Projects Aim to Raise Empathy for American Vets

Even before “Wings” won the first Academy Award for best picture in 1929, stories about soldiers and the military were already a staple of the big screen. Nearly ninety years later, the circumstances of their service have changed, but the nobility of their sacrifice endures, inspiring film and television storytellers alike to continue to pay them tribute with complex, rousing tales of heroism on and off the battlefield.

Spurred by patriotism and the promise of a window into the daily lives of soldiers, audiences have readily embraced military-themed films and shows, from “Band of Brothers” to “American Sniper” to last year’s “Hacksaw Ridge.” But an upcoming wave of projects offers filmmakers the opportunity — and responsibility — to explore the lives of United States veterans more authentically than ever before, drawing upon firsthand accounts from real-life heroes to both do justice and lend credulity to stories both fictional and fact-based without succumbing to jingoistic clichés.

Making his directorial debut, Jason Hall hopes to apply the lessons he learned writing the Oscar-
nominated screenplay for “American Sniper” to “Thank You for Your Service,” his adaptation of David Finkel’s nonfiction book about soldiers facing PTSD after returning home from Iraq.

“As much as I felt like I set out to make a film about the sacrifices of a soldier in ‘American Sniper,’ it was reviewed by many as something that was war porn,” Hall says. “And in this book I saw the story of this guy who, as heroic as everything he did over there was, he came home and he opened up about the things that he was going through … it was the most extensive, revealing, poetic account of a soldier after war that I’d ever seen.”

The postwar experience has been explored on film as far back as in William Wyler’s 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Hall suggests that soldiers at the center of his story expose viewers to an experience many people go through, even outside the military. “Trauma isn’t something unique to just soldiers,” he says. “We saw in Las Vegas what happened, and all of those people are going to have the same kind of terror and experience resonating inside of them. So I tried to tell a story of human endurance and triumph as much of a story of a veteran experience.”

Nicole Riegel, a former Ohio Army National Guardsman-turned-screenwriter whose Twitter bio reads “traded my M16 for a pen,” says she’s eager to expand the scope of military stories beyond the narratives most commonly associated with veterans.

“I think that the common thread is when we think of soldiers we think of PTSD and there are so many other areas that are fertile territories for drama,” she says. Riegel is developing an adaptation of George Brant’s stage play “Grounded” for Anne Hathaway. It’s about America’s transition to drone warfare through the eyes of a young female pilot. “We really focus on what’s it’s like for a fighter pilot to make the transition to becoming an [Remote Piloted Aircraft] pilot: what is that transition like and how does it affect you physically and mentally and emotionally?”

Riegel, whose original screenplay about American POW Jessica Lynch was selected for participation in the 2014 Sundance Screenwriters lab, says she also feels a particular responsibility to create more — and more complex — portraits of female soldiers.

“I would like to see women in the military depicted in a way where they are operating within a male dominated field, but also maintaining their femininity,” she says. “And the fact that it was so important to [Anne] that I get involved in telling this story, I think that’s where real change happens. We’re talking about women in the military, and seeking out who gets to help tell those narratives.”

Another way in which storytellers are empowering veterans to control their own stories is by enlisting them as consultants and even content creators. According to executive producer Sarah Timberman, CBS’ “SEAL Team” has thus far enlisted as many as 50 veterans, such as Delta Force Tier 1 operator Tyler Grey, to provide a sense of verisimilitude, not only in terms of operational accuracy, but also intellectual and emotional perspective.

“Their involvement is so much more than giving logistical or technical advice,” Timberman says. “We’re trying to reflect how these guys feel about warfare and about their comrades and about the people they’ve known and about the degree of loss that’s involved.”

Of course, trying to wrangle so many different perspectives into a cohesive or singular portrait of the military mindset is a challenge for a show meant for the broadest audience possible. But Timberman says focusing on the ground-level perspective of the individuals that populate the show’s ensemble enables them to avoid the larger political ramifications of their operations.

“One of the things that we’ve come to admire about the former Tier 1 operators that we’ve come to know is that they’re really apolitical,” she says. “They don’t get to say whether a particular mission is being staged for the right reasons. They just have to execute it to the best of their ability and within very strict confines that are the rules of engagement.”

Grey, who joined the show as a consulting producer, echoed Timberman’s emphasis on accuracy and immediacy, branding “SEAL Team” less as a tribute than a faithful and immersive chronicle of military culture. “My goal was to make something that, as authentically as we can within an entertainment space, portrays the real lives both deployed, home, away and the families of these team members,” Grey says. “It’s a workplace drama, and by workplace it’s really a military drama because being deployed and away from your family is something that’s pretty universal. So for me, it’s how much can I help tell the stories of the last 16 years of our country’s history that as many people as possible can understand?”
Just as fictional stories can shed light on real life experiences, real life has an unfortunate way of making works of fiction relevant — as the filmmakers of “Last Flag Flying” learned when controversy erupted over President Trump’s comments to a Gold Star widow on the way to retrieve her husband’s casket. The story of a Vietnam veteran traveling with his son’s body after being killed in Iraq, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s novel offers a suitably complicated take on military service reflected in the experiences of two generations of soldiers.

Executive producer Thomas Lee Wright says he hopes that the story’s similarities to current events will spur a bigger conversation about how the American military reflects upon its country.

“The synchronicity is remarkable in terms of the concerns that are front and center in the media right now,” Wright says. “The notion of military service is that it’s the purest form of public virtue. What is the effect that has on our national identity? I think that this film can be part of a healing process in the sense that we talk about what our history is, and then where we’re headed in the future. There’s room for all sorts of different films about war and about men at war and about men after war. And my hope is that it continues and promotes a national discussion of these issues. Even if just one percent are still fighting on behalf of the other 99 percent of us, we need to have a greater understanding of the sacrifice of that one percent in order for the healing to occur.”

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