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10 Films to Watch This Memorial Day Weekend to Honor Those Who Served (Guest Blog)

From “The Best Years of Our Lives” to “Born of the Fourth of July” and “Flags of Our Fathers”

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“Thank you for your service.” The words have become a cliché, but Hollywood has tried long and hard to make them matter. The industry has produced countless films about warfare and those who died for their country (whom we remember this week). But it has had a mixed record on presenting characters suffering the after-effects of putting their lives on the line. They may have survived, but lost comrades and innocence. It is their moment, too.

WW2 brought the most cinematic treatment, and one of the directors who himself served — William Wyler — later had the guts to depict the challenges soldiers faced when the fighting stopped. Vietnam was likely the most troublesome to depict, it being the one we lost. Right-winger John Wayne was up first, with “The Green Berets,” gung-ho in flavor. It wasn’t until the late ‘70s that a pair of exceptional movies focused less on the reason for the conflict than its impact on those who were there. Iraq and Afghanistan have received their share — thank you, Kathryn Bigelow — with mixed intentions and results.

The film interpretations have pretty much mirrored the feelings of those on the home front. Where Hollywood celebs raised money, entertained troops, and opened canteens to mix with the WW2 soldiers, many of those who served in subsequent conflicts returned to silence (Korea) or protests (Vietnam). Over time, that has changed. Current performers who have stood up for soldiers include Bradley Cooper (who hosted screenings at veterans hospitals), Mark Wahlberg (Active in the Wounded Warrior Project) and Jon Stewart. (who offered internships to veterans), Michael B. Jordan and Pam Dawber have supported a Los Angeles organization called Village for Vets.

That one was founded by Marcie Polier Swartz, — who previously founded Entertainment Data, the company that pioneered analytics for Hollywood films on a 24/7 basis — an impassioned and creative executive. Recently, she partnered with Amazon Fresh and Prime Video to deliver 1,100 boxes of food to more than 600 veterans in low-income supported housing. The event coincided with Jordan’s newest film, “Without Remorse,” and the actor surprised drivers by showing up to help pack the food. “We have to pay close attention and do a better job of understanding what the process is like for Vets when they come home,” Jordan said at the time.

Dawber admitted she was seeking a new cause when she noticed all the homeless veterans outside the huge VA facility in Westwood, one that has been underused due to lack of attention and dollars. “It seemed like a metaphor somehow,” Dawber says. “I’m just a helper bee, but I have contacts, and I know how to help organize,” she says, “including a Super Bowl party we do at the VA’s Welcome Center.” (Supportive husband Mark Harmon joined for a screening event  for the organization.)

This is a time to pay tribute and remember those who lost their lives — but also to understand the complications of a long-held characteristic of the soldier. As Sen. Tammy Duckworth (who lost both legs flying a helicopter in Iraq) writes in her new memoir, “there’s a notion that a lot of Veterans share..a feeling that if they accept help for themselves, they’re somehow taking it from someone else.” 

As we honor those who served, here is my list of 10 films worth watching about what may not have been the best years of their lives, but likely the veterans’ most memorable ones. 

“The Men”

Directed by Fred Zinneman, this 1950 movie is most notable for being Marlon Brando’s first. He plays a WW2 veteran who has lost the use of both his legs and unhappily spends time in a hospital with others who were disabled. Brando spent a month in a hospital in preparation for the film.

“The Best Years of Our Lives”

The aforementioned 1946 William Wyler classic about three men who return to very different expectations, and realities. Starring Frederic March and Myrna Loy, the movie not only took home the Best Picture Oscar, but March won Best Actor and real-life Vet Harold Russell, who had lost both hands in battle, won Best Supporting Actor for his first role. Powerful, painful, and brave.

“Coming Home,” “Deer Hunter” and “Born on the Fourth of July”

The first two were released in 1978: great movies, exploring what so many Vietnam veterans returned to. Jane Fonda had taken flack for criticizing the war (Ron Brownstein writes in “Rock Me On The Water” she repeated her allegations that returning POWs selected by the Pentagon were lying about systemic tortures”) so producing “Coming Home” was an important apology. She won the Oscar for Best Actress and Jon Voight won Best Actor as the embittered and disabled vet. “The Deer Hunter,” about three returning soldiers, earned multiple nominations and introduced us officially to Meryl Streep. “Born On The Fourth of July” came out about ten years later, but dealt with the harrowing true-life story of vet-turned-activist Ron Kovic. Oscar-nominated Tom Cruise soared in the role.

“Flags of Our Fathers” and “American Sniper”

This could be called the Clint Eastwood chapter. Regardless of where the director stood — or stands — politically, these were honest portrayals of those who served and came back with different kinds of repercussions. “Flags,” in 2006, focuses on the men who raised that iconic American symbol at Iwo Jima. A turning point in the war…but what about their lives after? “American Sniper” stars Bradley Cooper as a Navy SEAL whose shooting prowess was legendary in Iraq. The story deals with the difficulty he had in leaving that war behind.

“In the Valley of Elah”

A heartbreaking murder mystery from 2007, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Charlize Theron. Although about the Iraq War, this is ultimately a family drama, one filled with veterans. (“Living in this house, he couldn’t have felt like a man if he hadn’t gone,” “I saw my father come back from war and it practically destroyed him”) 

“Decoration Day”

A 1990 television movie starring a hugely appealing James Garner (who won the Golden Globe) as a vet (“We’re all wounded in some way”) and judge who comes out of retirement to help an old friend who refuses to accept a Congressional Medal of Honor. That veteran happens to be a man of color (“The white man shoots, the black man cooks and cleans up,”) which seems almost surprising and prescient now.

“Da Five Bloods

That is a perfect segue to Spike Lee’s 2020 film, which was unjustly ignored by the award-givers. It tells a compelling story about veterans returning to Vietnam to learn what happened to their leader. More importantly, it leaves us understanding how Black soldiers continued to be mistreated or ignored when they returned. One of my heroes, former California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, took to the House floor after WW2 to name every Black serviceman, ensuring those names would live in the Congressional Record.

Which makes this the perfect time to remember — and thank — those whose service mattered. 

Michele Willens is a bicoastal journalist. She writes a weekly theater report -- Stage Right Or Not -- for an NPR affiliate.