There have been a number of fantastic military films released over the past decade — many of which we’ve covered on this site — but it’s hard to deny the shift in the content of these films when compared to the flicks of my childhood, growing up in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, America has been at war for going on two decades, and our films on the subject reflect the array of emotions that follow suit. Films based (loosely) on real combat operations, or on the true stories of service members that struggle after they return home, offer a glimpse into the seemingly alien veteran experience for the uninitiated, as well as a sometimes cathartic form of commiseration for those of us that spent years in a uniform ourselves.

The shift has been a logical one, of course. When I was a kid, we weren’t actively fighting a war (let alone two), we were constantly concerned about a global one starting. That anxiety manifested in some incredible bits of fiction that not only provided us, the viewing public, with a frightening idea of the stakes of the Cold War but also granted me an important insight into the nobility of service. While these movies often presented an unrealistic or oversimplified premise, that oversimplification lent itself to heroes we could cheer for without reservation. The problem with idolizing real warfighters, of course, is that they’re also real people — ripe with flaws, politics, and emotions.

Men like Chris Kyle, who was unquestionably a hero in my book, has his name dragged through the mud posthumously by those who would question his military record or his honesty. Marcus Luttrell, likewise, has seen the accounts of his story questioned following the release of a film based on his story. These men, and so many like them, braved the worst this world has to offer, but in the turmoil of American culture, watching these films, enjoying them, has become a political act in itself that can be a distraction from the real reason we go to the movies: to have a good or meaningful experience. But if I’m honest, it’s not the political side-picking that comes along with these non-fiction (but largely fictional) stories that has me aching for a simpler time when the heroes and villains were figments of an author’s imagination. I’ve already picked a side, after all. No, the problem is a deeply personal one — it’s impossible for me to watch these men suffer, die, or survive on screen and not relate it to a kind of reality that can leave me sitting up at night.

I know guys that have died serving our country. Hell, I probably know some that have had their deaths depicted on screen, and through my affiliations with SOFREP, I’m probably no more than two degrees of separation away from a lot of the men we’ve watched fall tragically in theaters. I’m glad these stories are being told but the emotional toll of watching some of these films means they can never be fun. I recall my wife and I going to see “Lone Survivor” one date night a few years ago. When it was over, we drove home in silence, both too engrossed in the weight of the tragedy we just watched unfold, aware that those actors represented real men that died on our behalf. It was a meaningful experience for both of us — but sometimes, that’s not what I’m after when I buy my ticket.

Sometimes, I want to engross myself in the drama of the scene, root for the good guys, and engorge myself with both popcorn and escapism. I want a return to the days of “The Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide” — where the stakes felt real but didn’t carry the weight of real human sacrifice.

The joy we derive from fiction isn’t an affront to the real stories that deserve to be told. Fiction is about the exploration of ideas and feelings in a way we can detach ourselves from when we need to. If the movie you’re watching gets too scary, you can turn it off. The same can’t be said for non-fiction. When those stories grow too difficult to stomach, the tragedy remains even after the last pixel goes black.

The function of fiction

Read Next: The function of fiction

Enter the trailer for “Hunter Killer,” a new action drama with a star-studded cast that puts the fate of the free world in the hands of a single nuclear attack submarine and its crew in a way that evokes images of the political and military thrillers of yesteryear. The trailer, released earlier this week, shows Gerard Butler’s Captain Joe Glass, leading his crew and a team of Navy SEALs on a daring rescue mission of the Russian president amid a coup that promises to result in a destabilized Russia, and potentially, a third world war.

It’s hard to say if this new film will live up to the standards set by my favorite fictional military films of the 90s, but if this film proves successful, we may finally get to see a resurgence of military films that take geopolitics seriously without sending you home with a lump in your throat.

Because I may love to see the stories of American heroes being told on the big screen — but crying my eyes out isn’t always the best way to end a date.

Watch the trailer for “Hunter Killer” below:

Features image courtesy of Brigade Marketing