Since the start of Hollywood, war has been given a frequent spotlight in American cinema. (Check out that first Best Picture Oscar winner.) Beginning as an ideal form for patriotic propaganda through war epics and pre-matinee PSAs, war in film has since developed into a genre all its own. Within such dire, morally bound climates, plots are driven at rapid-fire pacing by high-stakes action sequences and psychological struggles. That’s excluding your Mark Wahlberg-esque, one-man-stand popcorn epics, which is a whole other story.
Beyond the American fascination with military heroism and sacrifice, the war film genre has begun to lend us a closer look into the deeper ethical complications of war in itself. While many films focus upon glorification and romanticization, filmmakers have also used the medium’s subjectivity as a deeper, humanized lens to the true atrocities of wartime. Through these stories, we can attempt to gain a closer relationship to a machination that often feels so emotionally distant.
If you’re looking for somewhere to make your way through some of the 21st Century’s best war films, especially, you couldn’t do much better than Netflix. From action-packed reenactments, to moving historical dramas, commentary-fueled farces, and even a Spike Lee joint, these are the best war movies to stream on the platform.
Da 5 Bloods
Even though Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods didn’t get the recognition it deserved this awards season, you can bet it won’t be soon forgotten. Lee’s heartbreaking portrait of a group of reunited Vietnam war vets is some of his best work yet—and it’ll stand, too, as a characteristically powerful exhibition of the talents of the late Chadwick Boseman.
Over two years after The King hit Netflix, we’re still wondering how this wasn’t more of a smash hit. Timmy Chalamet! Robert Pattinson! Dueling their way through a story based on plays from Shakespeare’s “Henriad.” Chalamet’s bowl cut clearly wasn’t powerful enough to cut through the culture.
OK, Extraction isn’t a war movie, exactly. But this list needs one of those mercenary-with-nothing-to-lose demolition romps. (C’mon, the ones made popular by Mark Wahlberg. You know what we’re talking about.) The sub-genre doesn’t get more big, dumb, and fun than it does in Extraction.
The Siege of Jadotville
Based upon Declan Powers’s book, The Siege of Jadotville: The Irish Army’s Forgotten Battle, this war drama tells the story of an Irish Army unit’s 1961 UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. The Richie Smyth-directed film gained acclaim within the Irish festival circuit.
Based on a true story, Defiance tells the story of the three Bielski brothers, played by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bells. As a family of Polish Jews in WWII, the brothers flee to the forest of their childhood play days, marking the site as their new battleground for rebellion against the Nazis. The Bielskis are soon met by the company of fellow vigilantes, forming a uniquely united coalition.
Beasts of No Nation
A young boy named Agu is forced into joining a team of rebellion forces to fight in a bloody civil war that has torn his unnamed West African country apart. Idris Elba stars as the charismatic rebel leader, known only as the Commandant, who leads Agu and his fellow soldiers down a dark and violent path.
First They Killed My Father
Angelina Jolie directed this drama, based on the true story of Cambodian human rights activist Loung Ung’s childhood experience living under Khmer Rouge rule in the 1970s, during which her family was forced into a labor camp by the Communist regime.
Chris Pine plays Robert the Bruce, the crowned king of Scotland who is exiled from his country and bands together a team of fellow outlaws to assist him in his efforts to reclaim his throne.
Roman Polanski’s WWII drama was partly inspired by his own experience seeking refuge from Nazi-controlled Poland, with Adrien Brody playing the radio pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who attempts to survive the German occupation of Warsaw.
Brad Pitt plays a tough but wacky U.S. General who is sent to Afghanistan to clean up the military mess following eight years of war. Surrounded by exhausted and disillusioned soldiers, he finds himself up against bureaucratic obstacles in this dark war comedy.
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