Heroic, masculine, patriotic, unquestioning, heroes unto death. That’s the monolithic portrayal of male service members in Hollywood. Once you’re in, you’re always in; you never truly retire. If war is too much to handle, expect shaming of masculinity, or portrayal as a coward. Better to die alone by your own hand, as many do.
If I’m sounding harsh, I’m merely echoing the unchanging narrative of Hollywood and media that military service members are meant to be instilled with unquestioning loyalty, upholding of their solemn duties, and throwing themselves into battle with the bravest of stoic faces. And when it comes to beating the odds, and beating back the enemy, the portrayals are rarely negative, even in the midst of tragedy.
It’s a rare story that pulls apart this narrative and examines the gender and racial diversity of the armed services, let alone sexuality, background, and even breadth of political leanings. Indeed, when surveyed, one veteran remarked that movies tended to portray them as “heroes or broken people,” a dichotomy that’s evident throughout most films.
One example is Bradley Cooper’s character Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in American Sniper. Suffice it to say that the film consists largely of him “defending” American armed forces by sniping and killing a large number of enemy combatants who all happen to be Arab (mostly Iraqi). Even as the movie vaunts Kyle as an American military hero, the pinnacle of masculinity, manhood, and patriotism. There have been some excellent examinations of this, such as Cannon’s observation that the film would have the audience believe “there’s only one type of masculinity to aspire to,” that of the subject. There’s also the excellent observation in a Conversation article on the movie that the portrayal asks us to mourn the “hero” as the “emotionally wounded martyr.”
Another movie rife with examples is Blackhawk Down. In this film, U.S. Army soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia, hole up in a compound following a successful rocket attack from a local warlord. There, they make a heroic stand through the night, saving as many of their compatriots as possible, before a UN vehicle convoy can escort them back home. As one author noted, this film is “about men among men,” and is a “celebration of manhood.” That then becomes the central portrayal: that the men who survived are heroes, and by virtue of the lens fixed upon then, so should all military men desire to be.
Serving to amplify this dichotomous narrow view of male service members is the ubiquitous underlying current of otherism in these films. In the films above, the heroic character is championed for killing or fighting the enemy ‘other’ (Iraqis, Somalis, Vietnamese, Germans, Afghani Muslims, etc.), or is shown as broken through the lens of absorbing their deaths and the grind of war. Indeed, racism is well established throughout the history of war films, and thereby within the context of service member protagonists. The stories of the ‘other’ are not treated humanely, but used as a sharpening stone for the story being told.
We’re left wanting for the more nuanced portrayal; the one that gets into the how and why of what makes up the military. Look here for examinations of films like the many ethical dilemmas of Platoon, an examination of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, or as a tangent, a queer review of 2022’s biopic of a gay Marine, The Inspection.
The examples are sparse because the lens is indeed narrow. Such aggrandizement is not a boon for veterans, either, as they face unwanted attention in the workplace, higher rates of domestic abuse, and far higher rates of suicide. A growing body of commentary and research is making the connection from perception in media to these effects, including the exceptional Pictures in our Heads (Parrott, Albright, Eckhart, Laha-Walsh).
Perhaps in time, the two roles of hero soldier and broken soldier will give way to the panoply of lived experiences that makes the armed forces so vital and representative. There are indications that the wind is shifting; and none too soon.