Couch Potato Briefing: Memorial Day Special

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This week’s roundup of rental movies to watch over the weekend commemorate Memorial Day, a day to honor the sacrifices of soldiers and reflect on the human horrors they must face. Presented by Ishaan Tharoor and Tony Karon.

The Thin Red Line

It’s fitting that in the week that Terrence Malick — the philosopher-turned-filmmaker who can spend a decade at a time on a project — won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Tree of Life, we feature an earlier triumph of his. As far as your humble scribe is concerned, The Thin Red Line is the best World War II film out there, and one of the best war movies period. Set amid the bloody 1942 battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, The Thin Red Line is a mesmerizing epic suffused with the cosmic poignancy that has become Malick’s signature. In one moment, the camera brings you to a quivering man with a gun, gripped by the terror and sadness of battle — the next you drift with the wind through the tall grass. It sounds cheesy in text, but the grace and empathy of The Thin Red Line is at times overwhelming. And it was a shame that a film of its stature was overshadowed in the year of its release by Steven Spielberg’s far more box-office-friendly and nationalistic Saving Private Ryan.- I.T.

The Hurt Locker

The best Vietnam war movies were made more than a decade after the last U.S. helicopter lifted off the roof of the besieged embassy in Saigon, after the cooling of the passions that had divided America on its commitment of half a million troops to a doomed Cold War mission in Southeast Asia finally allowed more a more nuanced, human look at the war. The achievement of Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker in capturing the same human experience of the American soldier deployed in an incomprehensible conflict in an alien culture is all the more remarkable for the fact that it  premiered in 2008, when tens of thousands of U.S. troops were still deployed in Iraq. The movie is a heart-stopping, gritty look at the work of Bravo Company, an Army bomb-disposal unit tasked with defusing the the improvised explosive devices that were the deadly signature of the Iraq insurgency. It’s a gripping exploration of the stresses operating on group of men who literally face death every day, putting their lives on the line to save others by picking the right wire to cut in a race against the clock, often under fire — and of the impact on their psyche of a daily journey through the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. The movie manages to largely skirt the politics of the Iraq war, coming down only on the side of the soldiers whose lives it will change forever. – T.K.

Platoon

There are so many utterly brilliant moments in so many Vietnam movies— the  “Charlie don’t surf” line in Apocalypse Now, the haunting scene of Marines marching through a burning city of Hue singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme in Full Metal Jacket, the Russian roulette scene in The Deer Hunter, and on and on and on —  that it’s hard to choose. But for my money, the best Vietnam movie of the bunch was Oliver Stone’s Platoon, which defied Hollywood convention to depict the  dizzying chaos of combat. Charlie Sheen’s new recruit, Chris Taylor, experiences his first firefights as an unfathomable maelstrom of noise, light and fear over before it could even be comprehended. Taylor’s rookie infantryman has the full horror of what he’s about to experience revealed to him as the downdraft of the chopper ferrying him to a firebase blows a tarpaulin off a row of dead G.I.s. His unit is divided along culture-war lines, and he is forced to choose between Sergeant Elias (Willem Dafoe), the counter-cultural warrior who smokes weed with the Afro-haired, Motown-loving brothers when the unit is at rest, and Staff Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger), the hard charging true believer who is willing to kill civilians he suspects of aiding the enemy. Oliver Stone’s movie, based on his own experiences in Vietnam, is at once both a vivid combat story and an allegory of the American experience in Vietnam. -T.K.

Full Metal Jacket

Another tremendous Vietnam war film, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket isn’t the most flattering portrait of the few and the proud. The vulgar early scenes at boot camp—an antic, sadomasochistic and vaguely fascistic rite of passage—are chiseled into the American cultural canon. The movie’s cast of characters move about with otherworldly names — Joker, Rafter Man, Animal Mother — and, as Tony mentions above, Kubrick’s dark humor and rogue protagonist make clear that the film is far less a tale of a heroic American war effort than it is a twisted journey into a theater of human barbarity.- I.T.

The Longest Day

Based on an eponymous 1959 book chronicling the events of D-Day, The Longest Day, a 1962 Hollywood blockbuster, is one of the more famous early World War II epics, recreating with meticulous detail and cinematic swagger the daring Allied landing on Normandy’s beaches. Its $10 million budget made it one of the most expensive black-and-white films  until Schindler’s List in 1993. Check out the star-studded cast, which includes John Wayne, Richard Burton and a young Sean Connery. – I.T.

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