Since the earliest days of cinema, filmmakers have been telling military stories to both pay tribute to the sacrifices made by the troops and explore greater human truths. Whether fact- or fiction-based, from 1927’s Oscar-winning “Wings” to upcoming projects including “Greyhound” and “The Outpost,” war has served as a backdrop for rich, memorable character studies, illuminating details about veterans’ lives that do not merely resonate cinematically but intersect with universal themes, and spark important real-life conversations.
Aaron Schneider, who is directing “Greyhound” for star and screenwriter Tom Hanks, says military characters and their experiences satisfy almost foundational needs for storytellers.
“It was [author William] Faulkner who said that the pillars of story are love, pity, pride, compassion, honor and sacrifice, and a war story comes with all of the above,” Schneider says. “So right from the start, if you’re telling a war story, you’re starting with about the purest protagonist you can start with, someone who’s willing to sacrifice comfort, home, family, future for a greater good. In terms of a hero’s journey, it doesn’t get any purer than that.”
Helming the WWII-set naval adventure based on C.S. Forester’s “The Good Shepherd,” Schneider says it feels special to be able to amplify the resonance and impact of a fictional story with the underpinnings of genuine heroism.
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“You can be kind of a megaphone for someone else’s historic sacrifice,” Schneider continues. “A great movie speaks to some really beautiful, universal truths, and it’s a privilege to bring a beautiful story into the world. But if at the same time, you’re bringing somebody’s personal story of sacrifice into the world, you get a chance to say, this isn’t just any old movie. There was a guy who did that. Or there were men like him who did that.”
In many cases there are men who did that, quite literally. Dramatizing real events, as producers Molly Smith and Thad and Trent Luckinbill did in spring’s “12 Strong,” presents filmmakers with a much bigger challenge, which is to not only fairly portray the lives of soldiers but also to accurately depict the challenges they faced, and sacrifices they made.
“These sort of ‘first boots on the ground after 9/11 stories,’ a lot of people didn’t know,” says Smith. “The mission was only declassified several years ago. That was a really interesting aspect of this to us, just getting to learn about these first 12 guys that went into Afghanistan and embedded themselves in the culture to take on this incredible mission.
“I think when you tell these kinds of true stories, you have such a sense of obligation to do it justice and respect their story and tell it with the most authenticity and to the best of your ability while of course making sure they understand there’s things you have to do that are for entertainment value as well.”
Thad Luckinbill indicates that the unique conditions of these soldiers’ deployment, and their collaboration with people perhaps once considered enemies, made this irresistible to explore.
“One of the things that appealed to us was seeing a modern warfare happening on horseback, almost like it was the cavalry in a much earlier time period,” he says. “That was cool for us to show. It was something where Americans realized they were up against the wall, and the only way to succeed was to trust in the Afghanis to do this together. It was sort of a neat way to look at a story that maybe we’ve seen in a different context.”
Similarly, director Rod Lurie’s latest project, “The Outpost,” adapts Jake Tapper’s detailed account of a deadly 2009 battle in Afghanistan between some 60 American soldiers and more than 300 Taliban insurgents into a riveting portrait of heroism and sacrifice. Lurie was initially inspired to tell the story
as a tribute to the West Point men and women he graduated alongside in 1984, but its tragedies took on new meaning in the wake of a heartbreaking loss of his own.
“While I was in prep on this film, my son died; he was 27 years old, and I had to fly back to this hospital in Michigan where I held his hand as he passed away,” says Lurie. “And I promise you that one of the first things that passed through my mind was that he is the same age as these men who died, and I became instantly more gravitated towards the feelings and sensitivities of the families who lost their sons or their husbands, and I gained an even greater sense of responsibility for these poor people.
“There’s that expression: you die twice — once when you pass away, and then again when your name is spoken for the last time by somebody out there,” he says. “And at least with a movie like this, these men’s names will be spoken in perpetuity. So it was a very personal film to make.”
Not just honoring but truly listening to the voices of our military men and women was paramount on Debra Granik’s mind when she co-wrote and directed “Leave No Trace,” the story of a veteran whose PTSD drives him to settle in a public park outside Portland, Ore., to raise his daughter in isolation. Though she conducted extensive research to bring unwavering realism to this unusually intimate character study, Granik notes that Peter Rock’s novel, “My Abandonment,” provided her with incredibly rich building blocks for compelling drama starring Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie as the movie’s father and daughter.
“On this operatic level of what does it mean to be emotionally exiled from the culture that you came from that you can no longer go back to, it’s a very ancient and yet poetic story,” she says. “It’s high drama because that’s an acute psychiatric situation to be left in.”
Painstakingly blending factual detail with Rock’s fictional story, Granik says her commitment to this extraordinary, sensitive probing of the lives of veterans is born out of a larger belief in the importance of acknowledging their sacrifice, perhaps even more so when they return from the battlefield.
“Though we might feel weary of stories about warriors, if we’re going to wage war we’re going to have to hear those stories,” she observes. “We’re creatures of amnesia; frequently enough, we are given these big memories and this part of our brain that allows us to remember and make connections, and yet every 40 years we seem to forget some important lessons. So I would say that to be human is to ask veterans to tell their story, and to stay human we have to hear them.”