*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.
He’s turning ninety, so he’s seen a lot of war. Even at thirteen and a half inches tall, with a golden body weighing only eight and a half pounds—Oscar’s been around and has some stories to tell.
The little statuette, of course, nicknamed “Oscar” (which may or may not be due to his having resembled someone’s “Uncle Oscar”), is more formally referred to as the “Academy Award of Merit.” Twenty-four of these will be handed out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on Sunday night at Hollywood’s annual gathering to applaud great artistic and technical achievement. The competition is fierce among the fifty-ninenominated movies; it’s almost surprising there hasn’t been more real blood on the red carpet beyond James Cameron nearly bludgeoning Harvey Weinstein with his Oscar twenty years ago.
The Oscars also have a distinct martial heritage. The first Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role was given to Emil Jannings, in part for his role in the 1928 silent film The Last Command, set during the Russian Revolution, a story that was inspired by a real-life general in the Imperial Russian Army named Theodore A. Lodigensky who fled the communist revolution and opened a restaurant in New York City (Lodigensky would also go on to play an “ex-military man” in several silent films himself).
Oscar, or, rather, the films nominated for the little gold guy, can pass on lessons about war, command, and strategic affairs that most wouldn’t otherwise expect. So, just before the awards are given out, it seems an appropriate moment to go war-tripping around the red carpet to look at four of the films nominated this year that might spark some “reel war” knowledge: Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, Blade Runner 2049, and War for the Planet of the Apes. (Note: I intended to also review Last Men in Aleppo, up for Best Documentary Feature and winner of the 2017 Sundance World Cinema Grand Jury Prize for Documentary, but the clock ran out. It looks excellent, and more importantly, a well-spring of lessons for the modern soldier or strategist, and so interested parties should consider that film as well.)
Dunkirk (2017), directed and written by Christopher Nolan.
Oscar Nominations for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Production Design.
The Brits may have slipped into the junior position in the “special relationship” during World War II, but they’ve won the long-run propaganda war: Dunkirk has officially surpassed Saving Private Ryan as the highest grossing war movie of all time (Step aside and mind the gap, Steven Spielberg and “Captain Miller,” Christopher Nolan and “Tommy Atkins” are coming through.).
Dunkirk isn’t like any other war movie, and that’s a good thing. It’s quiet, there’s little dialogue; the absence of talking is instead filled with a pulse-pounding score that makes you really feel the on-screen tension.
Right from the get-go, a black screen announces the dilemma: “The enemy have driven the British and French armies to the sea. Trapped at Dunkirk, they await their fate. Hoping for deliverance. For a miracle.” This flashes as a British squad is seen trying to make its way to the beach but getting mowed down by an unseen German machine gun. Only one squad member makes it and emerges to face the lines and lines and lines of men waiting for a naval rescue in the ultimate military “hurry up and wait.”
Of those British and French men that made it to the beach, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill hoped that 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 men would make it back across the English Channel (a distance of around twenty-one miles) during Operation DYNAMO on May 26, 1940. The film centers on the experience of the men in making this perilous withdrawal. While not the subject of the film, it is important to note that one question unaddressed is why the Germans didn’t move in with tanks and finish off the trapped forces on the beach.
Beyond that, one artistic choice in the movie that has relevance in the real world is that even though the Nazis are the greatest war movie villains of all time, we never see them. Not a single visible swastika. Sometimes the enemy is hidden, and that can be just as frightening.
And while war movies often focus entirely on the actions of one heroic individual—someone that alone has the power to determine their own fate, in Dunkirk, the men we see are nearly all entirely reliant on others: the evacuees on the beach need the navy’s ships and temporarily repurposed civilian boats, and the ships need the air force’s cover. War is a team sport.
But, beyond those points, the great wisdom in Dunkirk is that time is experienced differently in the different military services. Nolan tells the story in three parts with three different timescales: the ground forces on the beach covers one week, the seaborne vessels rescuing trapped soldiers unfolds over one full day, and the air combat story is only one crowded hour.
These stories ultimately synchronize in an impressive crescendo. But the bigger truth—that the different parts of the military run on different treadmills set at different speeds—is important for anyone wearing a uniform (or working with those in uniform). Ground forces are tied to the land in every way; they fight, eat, sleep, relieve themselves, and indeed do everything in a combat environment on terra firma. There’s a reason the well-worn phrase exists that “combat is ceaseless boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror.” We see this in the lengthy lines the infantrymen wait in to board the transport ships. They live where they work, which is on the dense, naturally complex terrain that marks the earth’s surface.
If the infantryman is on a calendar, the sailor is on a clock, watching the tides coming in, slowed down by the natural rhythms of the sea, but ultimately overcoming this natural resistance with manmade ingenuity and seamanship.
And the airman is the speediest, sprinting against a stopwatch. The technical wizardry in their aircraft, and the fact that the medium is largely empty, means the wielders of airpower can speed right on through.
Beyond the film, these impact the way each service thinks about military efforts. On the ground, because the timescale is so different, the army is often forced to think strategically, because you not only have to consider combat requirements, but also the full range of human needs in such a diverse combat environment. At sea, because the ships are so large, have such immense fuel requirements, and are payload-driven (whether that be firepower or cargo), the navy naturally focuses on operational concerns like the coordination and scheduling of ships in convoy. And, because speed drives intensity, the dogfight in the air drives the air force’s generally tactical mindset (which is likely why former US Air Force officer John Boyd’s famed OODA Loop is a time-based theory of military success that privileges speed above all else).
The film’s meta-takeaway is that timing is important in military affairs. To be a strategist is to be a conductor, and one must know the proper pace for each instrument of violence.
Darkest Hour (2017), directed by Joe Wright, written by Anthony McCarten.
Oscar Nominations for: Best Picture, Best Actor (Gary Oldman), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Makeup.
Dunkirk and Darkest Hour are two sides of the same struggle. While Dunkirk gives us the boys on the beach, Darkest Hour is the politicians in the parlor, and Winston Churchill’s tumultuous first few weeks as a wartime British prime minister in holding the line against a range of competitors, from Adolph Hitler to his own cabinet.
The show begins on May 9, 1940. The film opens with ominous, silent images of German power: war materiel, equipment. The opening credits set the scene: “Hitler has invaded Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, and Norway. 3 million German troops are now poised on the Belgian border, ready to conquer the rest of Europe. In Britain, parliament has lost faith in its leader, Neville Chamberlain. The search for a replacement has already begun.”
Winston Churchill is the choice for prime minister, but not the first choice and certainly not a universally loved choice. But he ascends to the office he has long sought as his destiny, and the film follows his ability to navigate the political and strategic waters that flowed through a dangerous month in Britain, from his appointment to his stirring speech for the ages to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940.
The film is a collection of some of Churchill’s truly magnificent quips, anecdotes, and quotations (of course, not all of which, in review, he ever got around to actually saying, but one should allow screenwriters some Churchillian artistic license). On political rival Clement Attlee: “that sheep in sheep’s clothing.” On negotiating with Hitler: “You cannot reason with a tiger—when your head is in its mouth!” On his policy: “I say it is to wage war.” On his aim: “Victory.” On his approach: “Those who never change their mind never change anything.”
The film is also historical fiction, which means tradeoffs between historical accuracy and narrative fiction. (For those so inclined, here is an excellent rundown of what’s specifically real and what’s made-up.)
What the movie does show, and show well, is just how desperate the situation was for the British in May 1940. The specifics may have been fudged a bit, but Europe really was falling, which put the British prime minister and the rest of his countrymen in a terrible bind.
That’s where art can breathe life into an otherwise stale story. In a film, we can see the humanity, the anguish in the decisions, the difficulty. It wasn’t all high rhetoric and great speeches, and there’s one fantastic moment where we see Churchill struggle for words (which, whether this was recorded in the annals of history or not, must have been true at some point, and important to show that the Greats in History are, in the end, truly human).
The film finishes with the successful, safe evacuation of the British and French soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk, and Churchill’s address to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940.
The movie leaves us with two distinct impressions: first, that one person, in the right place at the right time, can indeed make a difference at war. And, second, words are weapons in the tongue and the pen of gifted strategists and statesmen. Both meta-messages shine through in this picture, and are worth the price of admission.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017), directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, story by Hampton Fancher, adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Oscar Nominations for: Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Production Design.
For would-be learners, the plotlines matter less in this film than the world its creators have built. The story’s background is that the world has essentially gone to pot. We learn a dirty bomb has gone off in Sin City, rendering Las Vegas essentially uninhabitable. A prostitute mentions offhandedly that she’s never seen a tree before. Widespread famine has pushed society into the hands of a wealthy industrialist (“Niander Wallace,” who owns the Tyrell Corporation, a character meant to represent an uber-capitalist version of Nobel Prize-winner Norman Borlaug) that feeds the world through synthetic farming. And bio-engineered “replicants” function as slaves to humans as cops, hitmen, and hookers.
Some might scoff at the rusty hellscape the film depicts, but after the year we’ve just had, when recovery from natural disasters cost the US economy more than ever before (equivalent to half the defense budget), and the World Economic Forum’s top global risk in the coming year is “ecological degradation,” the Blade Runner 2049point of view doesn’t seem so shocking.
The movie also raises some other important issues. We see a relationship between a replicant (synthetic human male) and a computer hologram (projected female) that’s been programmed as a companion for the male replicant. At one point, the girl says “I’m so happy when I’m with you.” And the guy responds, “You don’t have to say that.”
But the reality is that she probably did have to say that because she was programmed to. Which pushes another set of questions. Without free will, is there any love, or, for that matter, leadership? If everyone behaves according to a program or protocol, with no deviation, what is left for two of the endeavors that’ve most inspired the human species?
To that point, the film gives us several glimpses of humans intimately linked with machines—a relationship that’s been termed by historian Yuval Noah Harari as “homo deus” (or, in Pentagonese, “manned-unmanned teaming”). While today it’s clear by the astonishing amount of time people spend with their smartphones that we’ve already started down this road, where will we end up? What’s the optimal level, the right balance between man and machine? As war becomes more technologized, more synthetic, how will the “Band of Brothers” (and “Sisters”) adjust to accommodate a heart- and soul-less squadmate?
Like it or not, Blade Runner 2049 raises some grand questions about society, technology, and strategic affairs.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017), directed by Matt Reeves, written by Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves.
Oscar Nominations for: Best Visual Effects.
Ok, so this one’s a little far-fetched. The opening scrawl describes a frightening world, in which fifteen years ago, a science experiment gave rise to a species of super-intelligent apes. Simultaneously, something called the “Simian Flu” began afflicting mankind (we learn later that the mysterious “flu” causes humans to lose speech, and maybe even their ability to reason). A new ape civilization begins to form, led by Caesar, and at least one faction of more militant apes has splintered off from Caesar and attacked humans. The humans fight back, though, against the entire ape species. Or, as one character succinctly puts it: “Human sick. Ape smart. Human kill ape.”
None of this is happening (at least not tomorrow). But there are still at least three things we can take from the film, all related to the social and cultural distance between enemies.
This is the film’s strength; we see two different species at war. Apes, growing in their cognitive abilities, and humans, in their cognitive decline. From this basic plot premise, we see how ugly it can get between warring parties.
The first thing we see on camera is the backside of human military helmets, during the march to a mission, with the helmets marked by phrases like “Monkey Killer,” “Bedtime for Bozo,” and “Endangered Species.” The dark and sometimes disgusting humor of military graffiti tells us something about who they are and how they think about their enemy. The “othering” they’ve done to think of their opponents as sub-human.
And because their opponents are apes, we in the audience are naturally inclined to think of them as lower than the humans. But we see time and again that they’re not. After suffering sixty-three casualties in an attack from the “Monkey Killer” human army unit, Caesar decides to release his five human captives to show the apes “are not savages.” We’re shown time and again that the otherwise “lesser” species is actually quite noble, and that the fearful humans, believing they’re about to be replaced in Earth’s pecking order, do some truly horrible things (e.g., killing their own, summary executions, and a concentration camp the Nazis might recognize).
Finally, the characters that attempt to be the bridge between the two sides couldn’t be more repugnant or more important. One of Caesar’s followers’ defects to the humans. We watch the human soldiers call their defector “Donkey,” and the humans consistently show him extreme disregard. Caesar, when he comes back into contact with the defector, literally cannot stand to be physically near the traitor, an interesting window into what it’s like for informants and interpreters on the modern battlefield.
Sometimes, even the strangest plotlines can give us something to learn. In this case, what we get is a depiction of the hatred between species, the othering, the honorable nature of those we might otherwise look down upon, and the very worst spot to be in when two very different enemies are at war—in the middle.