Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The war film that has perhaps made the greatest impact in the last 20 years is Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. At the very beginning the audience is plunged into a battle sequence lasting 27 minutes, recreating the horrific reality of the D-Day offensive at Omaha Beach. It stars Tom Hanks in the role of John H. Miller, who is on a mission to locate Private Ryan, the last surviving member of a family of four brothers fighting in the war (played by Matt Damon). Much of the historical data used in the film is taken from the books by historian Stephen Ambrose, who branded it as “the best war movie ever made”. At times hard to watch, it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted, though nevertheless remains a modern classic of the genre.
Real footage, real bullets, real deaths: there is nothing staged about Restrepo, a feature-length documentary which chronicles a year in the lives of fifteen soldiers in a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley of eastern Afghanistan. Its directors, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, wanted to convey the brutality of war through the eyes of a U.S. platoon, and the only way for them to achieve this degree of realism was to be in the midst of the action itself. The heroic effort of both directors is reflected in the very nature of their work, living the same lives and being denied the same luxuries as the soldiers. The sacrifice involved in the shooting of this documentary was immense, and the untimely death of Hetherington while covering the conflict in Libya a year after Restrepo‘s release was yet another bleak reminder of the horrors of war portrayed within.
One of only a handful of German-made films about Hitler, Downfall is a rare gem amongst a multitude of biased and distorted Hollywood portrayals of the führer and commander of the Third Reich. The film chronicles the last ten days of Hitler’s life before his suicide, and provides a historically accurate account based on the memoirs of his private secretary, Traudl Junge. Bruno Ganz steals the show with his mesmerizing performance as the Nazi leader, casting a new light on one of the most infamous figures in history. No one would have guessed that such a serious topic would become the subject of countless memes and YouTube parodies either, but Ganz’s interpretation of Hitler will nonetheless surely be remembered as the truest of its kind for decades to come.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
The aftermath of the Vietnam War saw a huge response from Hollywood directors trying to make sense of the infamous military disaster. Michael Cimino was among the first to do so with The Deer Hunter, casting legends Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep and John Cazale in the main roles (Cazale was battling cancer throughout the shooting of the film and passed away before its completion). It centers on the stories of three steel workers whose ordinary lives change overnight when they are drafted to fight for their country and sent to Vietnam. A Russian roulette motif taken from an unproduced screenplay and merged with the war narrative permeates the film, and though it diminishes the historical credibility somewhat, it certainly enhances the underlying message: the dehumanizing effect of war on all involved.