A History of the Global War on Terror Through Must-See Film

August 23, 2019Dustin Lehmann
Left to Right: Pablo Schreiber plays Kris “Tanto” Paronto, John Krasinski plays Jack Silva, David Denman plays Dave “Boon” Benton and Dominic Fumusa plays John “Tig” Tiegen in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi from Paramount Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment / Bay Films in theatres January 15, 2016.

Left to Right: Pablo Schreiber plays Kris “Tanto” Paronto, John Krasinski plays Jack Silva, David Denman plays Dave “Boon” Benton and Dominic Fumusa plays John “Tig” Tiegen in 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi from Paramount Pictures and 3 Arts Entertainment / Bay Films in theatres January 15, 2016.

Gather ’round, take a knee, and listen up — it’s story time. For as long as humans have been around, they have used stories as a means to entertain, to remember, to share history, and to process what is happening in the world around them. From cave drawings to the modern age of Hollywood, stories have had a powerful effect on those who experience them. 

Modern film is storytelling in its prime. Any noteworthy event that occurs in the world, you can bank on it hitting theaters not long after. The Global War on Terror is no exception. 

Let’s face it — when it comes to the GWOT, Hollywood rarely gets it right. However, whether the film is tone-deaf regarding life overseas (“The Hurt Locker,” anyone?) or portrays a romanticized version of war that makes viewers want to run to the nearest recruiter and sign up to be a Special Forces Ranger SEAL Sniper immediately (ahem, “12 Strong”), they still shine an important light on nearly two decades of war. 

Good or bad, the following films are stories that depict our generation’s great war. They’ve shaped how the world views the GWOT and are generally worth watching — even if some of that time is spent thinking, Well, that’s not quite right …

“Zero Dark Thirty” (2012)

The world became a better place the moment Usama bin Laden was wiped from the face of the planet. No question. “Zero Dark Thirty” shows a different side of the Global War on Terror. Jessica Chastain’s character, a CIA operative named Maya, believed that Bin Laden was not hiding in Afghanistan, where the manhunt was being conducted, but rather that he was in Pakistan. 

Throughout the film, she follows lead after lead while sticking to her hunch about the location of the world’s most wanted man. This first two-thirds of the film focus on the government’s struggle to agree on a plan of action based on incomplete intel; the embarrassment that would come from sending the U.S. Navy SEALs into Pakistan (a U.S. ally, in theory) could be devastating to the presidency if it turned out that Bin Laden was not at that compound.

Through black site interrogations and hours spent monitoring drone footage, Maya eventually thinks she has discovered the compound where Bin Laden is hiding. This discovery leads to the SEAL Team 6 raid and the death of the highest-profile terrorist in history. The film showed a “behind the scenes” look at one of the most pivotal moments during the GWOT.

“The 15:17 to Paris” (2018)

This Clint Eastwood film was based on the events of the attempted terrorist hijacking of the Thalys train No. 9364 bound for Paris. Three Americans were traveling through Europe when the attack happened. Through their bravery in the face of danger, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, and Alek Skarlatos saved the lives of more than 500 passengers on board that evening. Throughout the entire situation, their loyalty to each other never falters. As soon as they identify what is happening on the train, they make the decision to devise a plan and take action.

The film follows the men from childhood through their time in service, culminating with the attempted terrorist attack. The lessons these men learned through life and in service are the embodiment of a GWOT veteran. The bravery, loyalty, and duty do not end once the uniform comes off — it’s a way of life. 

An advantage this film has over the others is that the heroes play themselves. 

“13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi” (2016)

After their time in service, some veterans go into private contracting, which then becomes a big part of their Global War on Terror experience. “13 Hours” is the story of six former military service members who fought to defend American lives against terrorists at the embassy annex in Libya on Sept. 11, 2012. 

In the aftermath of Muammar Gaddafi’s demise, a power struggle erupted in Libya. The climate was hostile and dangerous for everyone in the country as warring factions attempted to seize control. When the attack was initiated on the embassy in Benghazi, the contractors were less than a mile away. The CIA station chief wouldn’t allow the contractors to do their job by aiding the embassy. After the terrorists infiltrated and set fire to the embassy, the contractors finally disobeyed orders and deployed to the site. Due to the slow reaction by the CIA station chief, Ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, an officer for the Foreign Service, were killed during the attack. 

The ensuing gunfight at the annex is another prime example of what is ingrained in GWOT veterans. These men held off hundreds of attackers for 13 hours while the State Department refused to send aid, as America wasn’t authorized to have troops in Libya. The knowledge, skills, heroism, and dedication of the former military members was on full display even as they faced harrowing odds.

Eventually, relief came and the annex was evacuated to the local airport. Former SEAL Tyrone Woods sacrificed his life in defense of the annex. 

“American Sniper” (2014)

The opening scene sets the pace of the movie. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is providing overwatch for a convoy. He spots a man on a rooftop talking into a cell phone. The man appears to be observing the convoy, and Kyle radios it in. Next, he spots a woman and child exit the same building; the woman pulls a grenade from beneath her burqa. Kyle gets the green light to shoot, but his U.S. Marine spotter warns him that if he shoots the child and he’s wrong about the grenade, he’ll go to prison. 

The film cuts to Kyle as a young boy hunting with his father. The sentimental scene shows Kyle’s first kill, a deer. He learns that he has a gift for shooting, but that killing is not to be taken lightly. As Kyle grows, we see him develop a deep sense of loyalty, protectiveness, and an understanding of right and wrong. This is most prominent when his father tells him and his younger brother the story of the sheepdog. 

Kyle is credited with 160 confirmed kills, including a shot from 2,100 yards. “American Sniper,” based on Kyle’s memoir of the same name, follows Kyle through multiple deployments, the loss of team members, and his first kill as a sniper when he correctly decides to pull the trigger on the woman and child threatening the convoy. Kyle has been quoted as saying he doesn’t regret anything he did overseas, but the toll it took on him was obvious. Kyle humbly credited his success to “being in the right spot at the right time” rather than his proficiency as a sniper. 

This Clint Eastwood-directed film shows the exceptionalism and impact service members had during the Global War on Terror. “American Sniper” is a complementary blend of deployment and stateside time — and the difficulties that come with each.   

“Lone Survivor” (2013)

Military humor isn’t like that of any other workplace. This film highlights the competitiveness, good-natured hazing, camaraderie, and general “giving each other shit” that is part of military culture. From the beginning of the film, it is apparent that these men are more family than colleagues. But things quickly transition from lighthearted banter to one of the most voracious gunfights ever on film.

In “Lone Survivor,” Marcus Luttrell (portrayed by Mark Wahlberg) and his Navy SEAL team are tasked with setting up an observation point to locate notorious Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. While on the operation, the team becomes compromised after they let a sheepherder and his son return to their village instead of killing them or leaving them bound on the mountain overnight. 

As the men work their way up the mountain to call in an exfil, the sheepherder and his son alert the village below of the U.S. presence on the mountain. An onslaught of Taliban immediately gives chase. As every veteran of Afghanistan knows, the Taliban, not weighed down by gear, can move much faster through the mountains. 

The SEALs realize they can’t outrun the enemy, so they set up a defensive position. Due to the sheer number of Taliban, they are forced to retreat. The gunfight continues as they make their way down the far side of the mountain. Almost all of the SEALs are injured in the process. At one point, they jump from a cliff in order to create space between themselves and the enemy. As they tumble down the mountain, you can almost feel every bone-breaking impact. “Lone Survivor” places the audience directly in the action to show what the team endured.

During the fight, the entire team displays the fortitude and heroism expected by the military’s Tier 1 operators. This is most apparent when Michael Murphy leaves cover to climb a cliff in order to get reception on the satellite phone to call in the quick reaction force. He was killed while attempting to save the rest of his team. Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Pro Tip: Watch for the Marcus Luttrell cameos.

“Thank You for Your Service” (2017)

This film follows four soldiers as they cope with the effects of their time in Iraq. Sergeant Adam Schumann attempts to readjust to civilian life. Tausolo Aeiti suffers from traumatic brain injury (TBI) after a bombing. Will Waller experienced multiple improvised explosive device (IED) attacks during his time overseas, and they have lasting effects. Michael Emory struggles after a sniper’s round struck him in the head. 

Transition is a huge part of military service. Leaving military life and re-entering the civilian world can often be difficult for many service members. “Thank You For Your Service” puts that transition at the forefront. Through tragedy on the battlefield, this film provides an intimate look at a squad of soldiers — as well as their significant others — as they deal with the aftermath of deployment. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and TBI affect a large percent of the military and veteran communities, and viewers see it firsthand. It affects each of the soldiers differently; however, it did significantly affect all of them. 

Based on the study conducted in David Finkel’s book of the same name, “Thank You For Your Service” accomplishes something that hasn’t been done before — it shows the cost of war for the men and women who fought it and survived. 

“Restrepo” (2010)

This documentary is the most accurate look inside the Global War on Terror. Created by photographer Tim Hetherington and journalist Sebastian Junger, this one-year endeavor followed a single platoon on a tour of duty in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. The platoon was tasked with building an outpost in an exposed and mountainous environment. The forward operating base (FOB) was named Restrepo after their doc, Private First Class Juan Restrepo, was killed at the beginning of the campaign. 

From the moment of infil, the soldiers could see the area where they were supposed to build their FOB. It was in a valley, surrounded by higher vantage points. The look on every soldier’s face said the same thing: “We’ll be sitting ducks.”

Junger and Heatherington mostly sat back and recorded as the events unfolded around them. They provided an honest and vulnerable look at the soldiers as they “smoke and joke,” reminisce, and fight. When Junger did conduct an interview, he provided a prompt and then let the soldier speak freely. It is these post-deployment interviews that show the audience who survived the tour and who didn’t. It’s a powerful counterpoint to the firsthand footage of war.

“Restrepo” is unique because the footage is real and raw — this isn’t a Hollywood depiction.

“Captain Phillips” (2013)

“Look at me. Look at me. I am the captain now.” 

Throughout the GWOT, terrorism has taken on many forms in many different places. The 2013 movie “Captain Phillips” tells the true story of a container ship that was travelling through the Guardafui Channel in April 2009 when it was taken hostage by Somali pirates. The captain of the ship, Richard Phillips, played by Tom Hanks, attempts to keep the entire crew safe by using his wits and knowledge of the sea to outsmart the pirates.

Captain Phillips tells the crew to hide when he knows they are going to be overtaken by the pirates. Even though the crew is eventually found, this maneuver bought enough time for the SEALs to get into place before the pirates were aware. 

Captain Phillips was beaten and tied up, and the pirates decided that he must be killed. Just before he was shot, three SEAL snipers kill the pirates simultaneously, and Muse is arrested while negotiating the ransom for the ship. 

The movie is well-written and well-executed, showing the perils faced around the world during a troubled time. Every culture was doing all they could to take advantage of the GWOT. 

“Sand Castle” (2017) 

In a departure from Hollywood norms, Netflix produced a war movie written by a veteran of the war it’s about. Chris Roessner, who served in Iraq, wrote the original screenplay and Fernando Coimbra (“Narcos,” “A Wolf At The Door”) took the helm as director for one of the streaming giant’s most impressive offerings in the war movie genre to date. 

“Sand Castle” follows young Civil Affairs soldier Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) as his unit invades Iraq and then attempts to restore water to the people of Baqubah, just outside of Baghdad. The story is loosely based on Roessner’s own experiences during the invasion, although many aspects were dramatized according to an interview Roessner did with the Army Times. 

If you’re expecting a large-scale, tent-pole war epic, keep looking. “Sand Castle” is a story that reflects the often unglamorous realities of war experienced by the majority of service members: boredom, camaraderie, terror, humor, and frustration. The film moves smartly though, ignoring opportunities for philosophical navel gazing and politics that aren’t relevant to the men on the ground — though there were still little jabs here and there that seemed a bit out of place and obviously had an agenda.

Nicholas Hoult, Logan Marshall-Green, and Henry Cavill in “Sand Castle.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

The action sequences were good, and although you might be able to nit-pick certain aspects of the firefights, they are better than most war movies. Roessner nailed the banter between soldiers that is inherent in any unit at war, and the actors portrayed soldiers as many actually are: young, immature, and fiercely loyal. Henry Cavill, who portrayed a Special Forces soldier, did a fantastic job of avoiding common Rambo-esque chest thumping tropes while still accurately portraying the kind of type-A male that actually serves in SOF.

The movie falls short when it comes to uniforms and military tradition. It’s not so bad that it’s distracting — and their uniforms and weapons are correct for the period — but there were mistakes like rank not sewn onto patrol caps and soldiers with inappropriate rank for the positions they held (the protagonist is an E-2/Private despite having been in the Army for two years already). Many veterans roll their eyes at the protagonist trying to crush his hand in a door in the first act, but I actually thought it worked in the context of the character and their situation.

“Sand Castle” may not reflect your experience in Iraq exactly, but any combat veteran will identify with a lot of the concepts and feelings presented in the movie. None of the soldiers are portrayed as faultless heroes, but rather normal people who found themselves in the middle of a war. They laugh, they cry, and they bust their ass for missions that don’t always make sense to them. For many soldiers, war isn’t all about killing bad guys and raising the American flag after you take the hill. Sometimes, it’s about trying to fix a water pump station while dealing with local citizens who you can’t seem to please. 

“War Machine” (2017)

“Ah, America. You beacon of composure and proportionate response, you bringer of calm and goodness to the world … What do you do when the war you’re fighting just can’t possibly be won in any meaningful sense?” For those who love a healthy dose of sarcasm in their movies, the 2017 Netflix Original “War Machine” delivers it in spades. 

The screenplay was penned by director David Michod and adapted from the late Michael Hastings’ book, which was based on his Rolling Stone article that resulted in Stan the Man getting canned by then-President Barack Obama. Brad Pitt leads the cast as the infamous General Glen McMahon, aka General Stanley McChrystal.

The movie is based on the most violent period of the war in Afghanistan and portrays a caricature of the American military general officers who were in charge of trying to end the war while not sacrificing a decisive victory. They had their work cut out for them, and the film portrays that. If it were not based on real people and real events, I would say it was an extremely entertaining movie. But … it was. 

The film’s commentary on the macro-view of U.S. foreign policy in general and the Afghanistan war in particular was either so spot-on it was scary or so wrong it was … scary. There was no middle ground, and unless you have studied the evolution of America’s involvement in Afghanistan, you might struggle to find the line between the two. Don’t look at this as a documentary of fact but rather one person’s take on what they saw for a few weeks while embedded as a journalist in Afghanistan. 

Brad Pitt in “War Machine.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Although Pitt’s portrayal of McChrystal is hilarious, I’ve met Stan in person once or twice, and I served under him in one form or another for the entire time I was in the military. The movie was unfair to him and his efforts, which involved revolutionizing inter-agency cooperation within special operations and developing methods for dismantling terrorist networks that are used to this day. I don’t think it’s crazy to say that no other general officer has had more positive impacts on the war on terror than McChrystal. 

The movie doesn’t show that side of him. They show a much different, very fictional version. I would be surprised if anyone who has actually served in Afghanistan or knew McChrystal was consulted in any meaningful way on this movie.

The biggest mistake the movie makes is portraying one of the most tired tropes of the American war movie genre. Why do so many war movies feel the need to insert a “lone wolf” that goes Rambo in the middle of a firefight? This almost never happens in real life, and at this point I consider it to be lazy writing and even lazier filmmaking. You’re better than this, Netflix. 

“War Machine” is still worth watching though. Regardless of how you align politically, it will challenge your pre-existing notions about our foreign policy in general and the Afghanistan war strategy in particular. It makes you think, and that’s a good thing when viewed within the context of America’s Long War.

“The Hurt Locker” (2008)

This 2008 film, directed by Kathryn Bigelow, follows an explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team whose team leader was killed in Iraq. The replacement, Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner), is assigned to the team, and he doesn’t have the same style as the previous leader. He is cavalier, a risk-taker, and doesn’t “play by the book,” though he is good at his job. 

In 2010, “The Hurt Locker” was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won six, including best picture and best director, making it the most decorated film about the GWOT. 

However, the valor is stolen. While it’s an entertaining film, it was also obviously made by a bunch of people who never served in the military. James in an unrealistic portrayal of one of the most important, stressful, and dangerous jobs overseas. The bravado of the team and using a night of drinking and fighting as the way they eventually bond — while that does happen in the military — makes the service members appear one dimensional. “The Hurt Locker” takes one small aspect of military life and beats you over the head with it. Relentlessly.  

“12 Strong” (2018)

Based on the nonfiction book “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton, “12 Strong” tells the story of the 12 U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers sent to Afghanistan immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11. It’s an incredible story of U.S. soldiers doing extraordinary things at a time when the GWOT was just beginning to take shape. 

Hollywood took these legendary events and transformed them into Chris Hemsworth dodging rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) on horseback while charging a tank. It makes for a great movie, but it isn’t the real war on terror. 

“United 93” (2006)

On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists seized control of United Airlines flight 93. As the passengers begin to realize the gravity of the situation through contact with loved ones on the ground, they decide to take matters into their own hands. Rather than become a weapon of mass destruction on an unknown target, these heroic passengers fought back, sacrificing their own lives in order to save the lives of countless other Americans. 

The film does an excellent job of staying in the present tense. We see the perspective of the passengers in real time, and we find out the information as they do. We see the confusion, fear, and, finally, the realization of what is happening form in their minds. It’s through this point of view that the audience is taken on a journey to a final outcome that is already known. In a carefully curated and constantly progressing plot, we gain insight into a tragedy pieced together from phone calls and the black box aboard the flight. 

“United 93” is a unique and important part of GWOT history, and it’s worth the run time.

Dustin Lehmann
Dustin Lehmann

Dustin Lehmann is a combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan. After his military service, he earned an undergraduate degree in American Literature and Economics and Juris Doctorate at the University of Cincinnati. He also deployed twice more as a private contractor. Dustin currently serves as the CEO of Risers Consulting and is the Founder of The Leadership Group (TLG). When Dustin isn’t working, he enjoys writing, spending time with his dogs, reading anything with a Marvel or DC stamp on it, and playing as much golf as possible.

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