How Hollywood Portrayed the War in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan War Movies
Scott Eastwood in "The Outpost," Mark Wahlberg in "Lone Survivor" and Brad Pitt in "War Machine"

From Hitler’s invasion of Poland to the Japanese surrender, World War II lasted six years (and one day) and has inspired thousands of movies and television shows about the conflict.

With the War in Afghanistan scheduled to end for the United States before Sept. 11, 2021, the conflict will have lasted almost 20 years. And yet, so far fewer than a dozen American movies have been made about the conflict.

The Pentagon’s initial strategy of a special forces invasion severely limited access for war reporters in the earliest days of the mission, and the remote nature of much of the fighting meant that the American public didn’t hear much about what was happening in real time. Once that precedent was established, the folks back home shifted their focus to Iraq, and Afghanistan never attracted the full attention it warranted back home.

We need more Afghanistan war stories and to hear about the experiences of the men and women who served there. Some great movies are on this list, but let’s hope we get to hear more stories in the years to come.

Here are the most notable movies about the Afghanistan War.

The Outpost (2020)

If “The Outpost” had been released in any year besides 2020, it might have been a huge word-of-mouth theatrical hit and a major awards contender. Director (and West Point grad) Rod Lurie made a powerful film about the 2009 Battle of Kamdesh when a remote outpost was attacked by Taliban forces.

The movie focuses on Staff Sgts. Clint Romesha (Scott Eastwood) and Ty Carter (Caleb Landry Jones), who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the attack. It’s a movie about the battle and how most of the men survive the day, not a deep dive into the nation’s war policy. Soldiers, not generals, carry the day.

Since no one was actually going to make a movie in a war zone, “The Outpost” was filmed in Bulgaria.

Related: ‘The Outpost’ Powerfully Confronts the Contradictions of the War in Afghanistan

Lone Survivor (2013)

Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg made the highest-profile Hollywood film about the war, telling the story of Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, the only man who survived Operation Red Wings in 2005. The mission was to capture or kill Taliban leader Ahmad Shah.

The mission went sideways, and it’s a miracle that Luttrell made it home. The movie also starred Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy, Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz and Ben Foster as Matt Axelson. Murphy was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and inspired the annual Memorial Day Murph workout.

The movie was a big box-office hit and inspired Wahlberg and Berg to embark on a series of successful collaborations that includes “Deepwater Horizon,” “Patriots Day,” “Mile 22” and “Spenser Confidential.”

“Lone Survivor” was filmed in New Mexico.

Related: Marcus Luttrell Talks 'Lone Survivor'

War Machine (2017)

Director David Michôd took Michael Hastings’ controversial book “The Operators: The Wild & Terrifying Inside Story of America’s War in Afghanistan” about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s notoriously self-destructive conversations with the journalist and turned it into a heavily fictionalized war satire.

It’s a movie that earned a lot of fans among those who served in the war and a lot of detractors who got their only intel from watching cable news back home. Brad Pitt is hilarious as Gen. Glen McMahon, a man who believes in the mission no matter what the facts tell him about his chances for success.

Like most good satires, “War Machine” has a lot of sympathy for the men and women tasked with carrying out the absurd plans of their bosses. Michôd went on to make the Hulu series “Catch 22,” another classic war satire and “War Machine” is actually both funnier than that big-budget series.

“War Machine” was filmed in Germany.

Related: 'War Machine': Controversy in Afghanistan, With Jokes

12 Strong (2018)

“12 Strong” follows the Army Special Forces secret mission that preceded the formal invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Chris Hemsworth and Michael Shannon lead a cast that portrays the Green Berets ODA 595 unit tasked with fighting alongside the Northern Alliance to take the city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The mission was an unqualified success, but there were definitely roadblocks along the way, and the movie manages to create suspense for anyone who hasn’t read the book that inspired the film.

“12 Strong” was filmed in New Mexico.

Related: '12 Strong' & the Legend of the Horse Soldiers

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016)

“SNL” and “30 Rock” star Tina Fey stars as war correspondent Kim Baker in this movie based on real journalist Kim Barker’s memoir “The Taliban Shuffle.” Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton also star in this comedy about the frustrations of journalists trying to cover a war from a compound in Kabul.

“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was filmed in New Mexico.

Related: Meet Kim Barker, the Real Reporter Who Inspired 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'

The Kill Team (2019)

Director Dan Krauss based this dramatic film on his 2013 documentary of the same name about a 2010 incident in the Maywand District in which Army troops murdered Afghan civilians and collected body parts as trophies.

It’s a bleak movie based on a bleaker documentary about devastating war crimes. Nat Wolff stars as a young soldier who can’t reconcile what his unit is doing, and Alexander Skarsgård shines as the morally bankrupt sergeant who’s on a mission to kill anyone who doesn’t look like an American.

The movie is not easy to watch, nor does it ever imply that the soldiers who lead the crimes are in any way representative of the military at large. It’s still a worthy record of what can happen when the wrong soldiers are given leadership in a remote location without oversight.

“The Kill Team” was filmed in the Canary Islands.

Related: 'The Kill Team' and the Moral Injury of War: A Talk With the Film Director

Brothers (2009)

An English-language remake of a 2004 Danish movie, “Brothers” follows Marine Capt. Sam Cahill (Tobey Maguire) as he attempts to reintegrate into hometown life after his release as a Taliban prisoner of war.

Sam has a secret. Something awful happened during his captivity, and it’s the source of overwhelming post-traumatic stress that his wife (Natalie Portman) and brother (Jake Gyllenhaal) don’t know how to deal with as he struggles back home.

“Game of Thrones” fans might want to note that the English version of “Brothers” was written by David Benioff, who created the HBO series right after this movie was made.

“Brothers” was filmed in New Mexico.

Lions for Lambs (2007)

You’d think a movie directed by and starring Robert Redford alongside Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Michael Peña and Andrew Garfield would be a surefire winner. You’d be wrong.

Redford is a college professor who tries to get through to his apathetic student with a story about two previous students who enlisted to fight in Afghanistan after graduation. They serve bravely and don’t deserve their fate.

There’s a parallel story about a U.S. senator (Cruise) who’s trying to convince a journalist (Streep) to help him promote a new strategy designed to win the war. She’s doubtful, but her editors smell a popular story and tell her to get with the program.

Redford is trying to tell a story about how disconnected Washington strategists are from the reality on the ground, but the movie preaches instead of entertains. It’s no one’s best work, but it’s still a high-profile movie about an underrepresented war.

“Lions for Lambs” was filmed in and around Washington, D.C. The Afghanistan battle sequences were shot in California.

There are a few other movies that make passing references to the Afghanistan War. Arms dealer Tony Stark opens “Iron Man” (2008) with a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan, but the Marvel universe quickly leaves reality behind.

Chris Pine is a Marine fighting in Afghanistan in the 2014 Tom Clancy reboot “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” but the open battle scenes are quickly forgotten after Jack is recruited to the CIA. And Bill Murray plays a failing rock manager who discovers local talent on an Afghanistan USO tour and enters the singer in “Afghan Idol” in “Rock the Kasbah” (2015).

The Soviet war in Afghanistan inspired Sylvester Stallone to fight the Communists in “Rambo III” (1988). “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007), written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, starred Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the true story of one congressman’s efforts to fund Afghan guerillas in the fight against the USSR in 1980.

There are dozens of more stories to tell. Let’s hope Hollywood gets around to them soon.

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