There's a new war movie out which is getting generally positive reviews and subdued audience response. It's called Good Kill, and it serves as a very good companion story to 2014's American Sniper. If you just want a capsule review, skip ahead to paragraph six.
War is basically the perfect subject for a filmmaker. It is extremely visceral. It provides obvious action. Morality can be as opaque or as transparent as you like. War has been good to the film business. During the World War II years in America, the majority of top box office earners in some way, shape, or form, concerned war.
It is in that variation -- that "way, shape, or form" idea -- that I want to dwell for a bit. Good Kill, like a great many compelling war films, shows very little of soldiers in battle. It pokes around the edges of this vast cinematic canvass for a different layer. Sure, there have been countless high quality battle movies, but there are an equally countless number of war movies that scarcely show a shot being fired or a tank, bomber or destroyer. Here are a few couplings of war movies that do not predominantly feature traditional war scenes.
Forbidden Games (Rene Clement, 1952) and Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
Children are often used as pawns in real life, so it stands to reason that filmmakers would use their trusting innocence as a tool to rev up passions in movies. Horror films are probably most guilty of this, but war orphans are pretty common elements in war movies. What makes these two movies stand apart from most is that they genuinely tell their stories from a child's POV. Clement's movie, about the friendship that develops between a 5-year-old French girl and the young son of a farmer after the girl loses her family in WWII, is filled with both sadness and wonder. Takahata's animated film is also about a young girl and a slightly older boy struggling to survive the atrocities of war. Don't be fooled by the fact that this is animated. It is one of the darker and more harrowing portraits of the cost that armed conflict imposes on innocent bystanders.
MASH (Robert Altman, 1970) and Hope and Glory (John Boorman, 1987)
OK, understand that the designation "comedy" is conditional. There have been plenty of wartime comedies, from Duck Soup to Stripes. These two movies are comedies in the sense that they find the absurd humor in war, but they do not ignore the devastation. So whether it is MASH's mocking of the Last Supper (MASH hammered organized religion just as hard as it hammered war) or the children in Hope and Glory thanking Adolph for dropping a bomb on their school, the laughter is always uneasy, with a sense of dread and a torrent of blood never too far off. MASH spawned one of the most celebrated television sitcoms of all time, while Boorman's autobiographical story about being a boy during WWII was finally followed by 2014's Queen and Country, about the same boy, now serving in Korea.
The Messenger (Oren Moverman, 2009) and Good Kill (Andrew Niccol, 2015)
The Messenger, about soldiers charged with informing loved ones about a fellow soldier's death, is among the best American movies of the 21st century. It comes at war from a different perspective. Its leads, Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) and Captain Tony Stone (Woody Harrelson), would rather be fighting an identifiable enemy with live weapons, but physical and psychological damage has relegated them to this joyless task. In Good Kill, Tommy Egan is a fighter pilot who now launches drone strikes on targets thousands of miles away. He misses the adrenaline rush of real combat, but more importantly, he senses the degradation inherent in fighting battles with nothing at stake, or as he says, with "no skin in the game." Niccol's story provides a timely discussion on the use of drones and features a number of strong performances and telling moments. The military people are presented in a balanced, nuanced manner. Not so the intelligence community. They are mostly sinister. For my money, Ethan Hawke overdoes Egan's initial trauma a little bit, but otherwise, this is most effective.
King Rat (Bryan Forbes, 1965) and Empire of the Sun (Steven Speilberg, 1987)
POW stories were very popular after WWII. Movies like Bridge on the River Kwai and Stalag 17 were big budget, star-studded affairs. Bryan Forbes' King Rat, in identifiable "60s" fashion, set about to de-sentimentalize the sub-genre. It is a brutal movie about the harshest of conditions and the most cut-throat of men. Bennett Guffey's B&W cinematography is sharp as a knife, and George Segal's ultimate operator Corporal King, is an unforgettable jumble of strength and weakness and survival. Empire of the Sun, which starred the 14 year old Christian Bale, shares some elements with Hope and Glory that same year. American and British civilians and soldiers alike are confined by the Japanese after their invasion of China in WWII. It is Spielberg's best movie.
Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957) and Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)
Nowhere is the inanity of war made more clear than in these two films, each based on true events. Paths of Glory tells the story of three French soldiers accused of cowardice in WWI. More than any other title on this list, it does in fact take viewers into the trenches and shows battle up close. But the emphasis of the story is on the criminal, immoral behavior of the commanders, who are revealed to be the true cowards. Breaker Morant tells a similar story set in the Boer War. Its soldiers are accused of murdering prisoners. Both movies feature well known actors in the role of defense attorney -- Kirk Douglas for Kubrick and Jack Thompson for Beresford. Breaker Morant was the more nuanced of the two, but both will get any viewer good and angry at the injustice carried out by these court-martials.
Fires on the Plain (Kon Ichikawa, 1959) and Skammen (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)
We have now entered a dark metaphysical space where war is pervasive and destruction inevitable. Ichikawa was a director of comedies before his bleak portrait of a wandering soldier in the futile waning days of WWII, stunned critics and audiences alike. It is an absurdist tale of how the mostly unseen war causes the fabric of a society and the very fabric of being to collapse. In Bergman's movie, an unnamed war rages in the background as the marriage of a husband and wife disintegrates. The conclusion, as Bergman regulars Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow drift off into a gray abyss, with dead soldiers floating all around them, presents imagery as harrowing as any found in the most intensive battle scenes.
Since it seems unlikely that war will end any time soon, filmmakers will probably keep looking for new angles on the ultimate external conflict. Zaza Urushadze's Tangerines (2014) and Lazlo Nemes' Cannes Grand Prix winner Son of Saul (2015) are recent examples of how creative storytellers can be when given such a vast catalog from which to choose.