From fiction to documentary, past wars to current conflicts, there is a wealth of military-related content available on streaming services right now. I watched three of the big ones — “Combat Obscura,” “Triple Frontier,” and “They Shall Not Grow Old” — and asked some veterans to weigh in. Coupled with my civilian viewpoint, there were some wide-ranging opinions. But what do we know? Feel free to sound off with your take on the movies in the comments.
(available to stream on Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play)
Basically framed as The War Movie The Department of Defense Doesn’t Want You To See, the low-budget, high-energy documentary “Combat Obscura” tries to bring the viewer a better understanding of the conflict in Afghanistan through a ground-level view of one U.S. Marine Corps battalion.
The director, Lance Corporal Jacob Miles Lagoze, was deployed with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment as a combat cameraman to gather footage for military-produced videos sent to media outlets or used for recruiting purposes. Lagoze used what was left on the cutting room floor to show the viewer a different perspective than what is typically fed to the public.
“Combat Obscura” shows the Marines as alternately bored out of their minds or on the precipice of death; there is no in-between. Shenanigans ranging from freestyle rapping to smoking hash take up the majority of their lives. But in an instant, they’re in the middle of a firefight. Lagoze takes shrapnel in the head, clearly more action than he expected to personally experience, which leaves him shaken.
Deaths are depressingly frequent and never sanitized. We watch as multiple attempts to medevac a Marine fail due to incoming fire, feeling by proxy the growing frustration of his buddies, who are trying to stay alive as they watch his life slip away. “Combat Obscura” is unflinching in its portrayal of the realities of war.
After watching the film, former Marine Corporal Matt Catsimanes said that it was accurate to the war experience — the silly and the serious —but that “you can tell there’s a lot of editing done to only show that part.”
While Catsimanes thinks the filmmaker “had a little bit of an agenda,” he said that the movie serves a valuable purpose.
“I can see both sides of the argument — I get why [the Marine Corps] didn’t want that stuff released,” he said. “But it’s just one of those things that needs to be in the public sphere. People need to understand what actually goes on. There’s a lot of hard stuff to look at there, a lot of hard things that people don’t want to know.”
Catsimanes also felt the snap to action was well portrayed: “It’s constantly like you switched off, switched on, and you had to do it in a second. You can’t change it, you can’t alter it, the current situation is what it is, and you have to just give yourself to it.”
We agreed that the real strength of the movie is the role it can play in affecting the public’s perspective on the war in Afghanistan and what it means to be Marines on a forward operating base.
“Those are a bunch of 18- to 25-year-olds that are in a war zone alone and unafraid,” Catsimanes said. “All they have is each other.”
(streaming on Netflix)
In “Triple Frontier,” a former Green Beret gets sick of the contracting life and decides he’s getting the band back together. Pope, played by Oscar Isaac, returns to the U.S. after working in Colombia and rounds up his former team, which consisted of a helicopter pilot, two brothers, and Ben Affleck.
They’re all bored as hell after five years out, doing mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting to get their daily dose of being punched in the face or failing hard at selling condos to support their kids post-divorce. After some slight hesitation, they all agree to follow Pope to Brazil to kill a drug lord and take all the money from his stash house.
The plan does not go well.
I found the movie to be entertaining, well-paced enough that I wasn’t constantly reaching for my phone. Isaac was particularly good, and as a “Game of Thrones” fan, I’m always happy to see Pedro Pascal.
It was unfortunate, however, that the movie depends heavily on Affleck’s performance as a sad-sack suburban dad who was once upon a time the lynchpin of the team. After the early prominence of Isaac’s character, the focus quickly turns to Affleck, whose motivations and actions drive the rest of the film. The actor isn’t up to the heavy lifting.
While my opinion of “Triple Frontier” was largely one of enjoyment but indifference, the former Special Forces members I spoke with had widely divergent thoughts.
Mike Simpson, a former medical sergeant in the 7th Special Forces Group who is currently working on his own film, a documentary tentatively titled “Battlefield Normandy,” found the movie leaned too heavily on common military tropes.
“I think it’s just lazy writing,” said Simpson. “It’s just the easiest thing to go for because we’ve seen it before: the evil U.S. government and the military industrial complex just uses these guys up and then casts them onto the scrap heap to fend for themselves.”
Derek Gannon, a former 5th Group medic, largely shrugged off that reliance on stereotypes.
“Of course there are some corny parts in every movie,” Gannon said, “and there were some corny parts in this, but I thought it resonated.”
What struck Gannon first was the pacing. “There were a lot of complaints on Twitter about the movie being boring as all hell for the first 45 minutes. I think the director did that on purpose,” he said. “Affleck’s showing that condo and all you can hear is the water dripping, constantly — it’s like this monotonous annoying noise. And that’s what civilian life is, it’s annoying.”
Simpson was irritated by the many inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the film, such as the idea that a Colombian drug lord could get Peruvian teenagers to work for him.
“Not even a possibility,” said Simpson, who has many years of experience working in that region.
Gannon was less disturbed by this because he viewed it as a heist movie and not a military documentary. He was even amused by some of the inaccuracies.
“The first few minutes when Charlie Hunnam’s sitting up there going, ‘I was the best of the best’? That was kinda cringe-worthy,” Gannon admitted. “I don’t know of any SF guy who would go to anybody’s ACAP (Army Career and Alumni Program) appointment and be like, ‘I choked a dude out in the cereal aisle for Fruit Loops. Stay in, brothers.’ That’s super cheese.”
“THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD”
(available to stream on Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play)
I was lucky enough to see “They Shall Not Grow Old” during its first set of limited engagements back in December. When the credits rolled, I thought it had been totally worth the pre-purchased tickets and travel time to one of the few theaters where it was playing.
Nothing can prepare you for the way Peter Jackson paired archival audio, video, and photography with modern technology to bring World War I to life. You hear the naked patriotism of the troops who signed up with little to no reservation. You watch the massive undertaking of turning these inexperienced teenage Brits into a disciplined force ready to take up arms. And you see the camaraderie of men plunged into a squalor, trying to make the best of the worst circumstances, waiting to be shelled or shot as they holed up in the trenches for months at a time.
Chris Isleib, a retired U.S. Navy captain and the current director of public affairs for the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission, viewed the film as “a universally striking story.”
“This is obviously a British film and a British-centric film,” said Isleib, “but it’s going to affect veterans from any war or from any military organization. Veterans a hundred years ago faced the exact same challenges as the veterans do today. Their worlds have changed and they themselves have changed.”
Like the film, the message of the Centennial Commission is to remind the public of the cost and impact of World War I.
“When I started with the commission, World War I was still this forgotten war,” Isleib said. “I think that this film was really the capstone to remind people it still touches us every day.”
Bonus TV episode: “LOVE, DEATH & ROBOTS”
It’s about the length of an Adult Swim cartoon, but Netflix is offering one other piece of new military-related content this month — an episode of the David Fincher-produced animated series “Love, Death & Robots” called “Shape-Shifters.”
The animation lands somewhere between “The Polar Express” and a top-shelf video game, and the premise boils down to, “What if the Marines employed werewolves?”
Compared to the frenetic level of deployment activity displayed in “Combat Obscura,” the pace of the 16-minute episode is somewhat ponderous with relatively little action or shenanigans. This streamlines the plot, leaving time to explore the division between the existing troops and the newly recruited werewolves who have been brought in for the special skills they can contribute to the team.
Overall, I thought the message of the episode was heavy-handed. If the intent was to explore werewolves as a symbol for the “other” — transgender troops, say, or women in combat roles — it seemed to reinforce the idea that Marines will never accept anyone different in their ranks. I can’t say for certain whether that’s the case, but I certainly hope it isn’t. It’s also a somewhat limited metaphor given that women can’t rip off their skin in the full moon and go chasing after Taliban werewolves at night … or can we?