"Lone Survivor" is one of the most popular movies about SEAL Team because it explores one of the deadliest incidents in Naval Special Warfare history. Photo courtesy of IMDb.
It is no secret that Hollywood has long been a vital recruiting machine for the United States military. Whether produced with the Pentagon’s approval and material support, or made for the purpose of being “anti-war,” films about American troops perhaps do more than anything else to inspire young people to answer the call of Uncle Sam.
Historically, the most commercially successful military films have been those set in the shadowy world of special operations. Virtually every elite unit in the US Armed Forces has had at least one motion picture its members can point to that lionizes their service.
Special Forces have The Green Berets. The Rangers have Saving Private Ryan. Pararescuemen have Kilo Two Bravo. Recon Marines have Heartbreak Ridge. Even Coast Guard rescue swimmers have that mediocre film starring Kevin Costner.
And if there were such a thing as Space Force commandos, they’d have Starship Troopers.
Then, of course, there are the Navy SEALs, the most special of special operators as far as Hollywood is concerned. Forged perfectly by the salt of the sea, these amphibious commandos have been raiding the big screen since Richard Widmark’s The Frogmen premiered in theaters in 1951.
By now, there are so many movies about the SEALs that they are practically their own subgenre. But are all of them worth watching? Of course not. Here are five that are.
Ask any Navy SEAL who joined in the late 1990s or early 2000s, and you’ll often hear, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, that Navy SEALs is “the greatest movie ever made” or the “best documentary they had ever seen.”
The response is primarily because of the over-the-top action, cheesy lines, and now iconic — although cringy — golf course montage. Starring Charlie Sheen, Michael Biehn, and Dennis Haysbert, the plot centers around a tight-knit squad of SEALs selected for a mission only they can pull off.
The SEALs are sent to the Middle East to confront an element of terrorists in possession of Stinger missiles. The result is an action-packed adventure blending a pinch of realism with exaggerated war zone car chases, dramatic shootouts, and even an outrageous underwater knife fight. The movie is highly rewatchable and well-regarded by those who performed such actions IRL.
In this action-thriller, a rogue general (Ed Harris) and his loyal Marines seize control of Alcatraz prison, threatening to drop rockets full of nerve gas on San Francisco unless the government gives $100 million to the families of their men killed in action.
The Pentagon immediately forms a task force that includes FBI chemist Dr. Stanley Goodspeed (Nicholas Cage), former SAS captain and Alcatraz escapee John Mason (Sean Connery), and a Navy SEAL team.
The SEALs’ cameo is brief but memorable. The team infiltrates Alcatraz by SCUBA, dressed head-to-toe in black fatigues and carrying MP5 submachine guns.
After setting off an early-warning system, a standoff ensues, and we get the fiercest firefight of the film. The drama and tension set the stage for the rest of the movie. Add the onscreen chemistry between Cage and Connery and the unforgettable one-liners (“I take pleasure in guttin’ you, boy”), and The Rock is a film that delivers on multiple levels.
In director Antoine Fuqua’s 2003 action-thriller Tears of the Sun, a Navy SEAL platoon is dispatched to Nigeria in the midst of a civil war to rescue an American missionary doctor. However, Dr. Lena Fiore Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) refuses to leave unless Lt. A.K. Waters (Bruce Willis) promises to bring the villagers with them.
While escaping by helicopter, the SEALs and Kendricks witness the atrocities of rebel forces on the ground below. The SEALs ultimately decide to abandon their original mission to escort the villagers on foot to the border of Cameroon.
Tears of the Sun stands out because it's one of the few military movies that shows the reality of rebel violence in Africa. Although the plot is fictional, SEALs have been deployed to Africa for decades to conduct similar evacuation missions.
Adding to the film’s realism is former SEAL Harry Humphries, who worked as a military adviser on set. The Vietnam War Silver Star recipient’s influence honed in on the little things that other films get wrong. For example, he taught the actors basic ambush tactics, which included the use of claymore mines. Ultimately, Tears of the Sun is one of the most highly underrated SEAL movies in the subgenre.
Based on the memoir by former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the 2013 film Lone Survivor details the experience of a four-man SEAL element sent into the mountains of Afghanistan to uncover the location of a senior Taliban leader. However, during the mission — code named Operation Red Wings — the SEALs become compromised by goatherds and must make a critical decision that impacts their chance of survival.
Starring Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell, Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, Ben Foster as Matthew Axelson, and Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz, Lone Survivor masterfully portrays the heroism of the SEALs during that fateful mission on June 28, 2005.
While most Navy SEAL movies depict fictional action heroes, Lone Survivor gives audiences an authentic portrayal of the real guys through Luttrell’s eyes.
American Sniper, adapted from Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, hit theaters in 2014. Starring Bradley Cooper, the film follows Kyle’s journey through the elite ranks of SEAL Team 3.
Director Clint Eastwood expertly lays out the nuance of pulling security for US troops in the streets of Iraq, as well as Kyle’s struggle to cope with those experiences when he returns from war.
In one particularly poignant scene, Kyle is sitting on the couch in his living room, and the camera pans out to reveal that he is staring at a blank TV screen. Kyle is completely zoned out, unable to live in the moment.
American Sniper succeeds because it exposes the rawness of war and the realities US service members face when they return home — a theme Hollywood rarely gets right.
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Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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