In the Hollywood take on war, there are basically two types of military veterans – let’s call them “Mark Wahlbergs” and “Bradley Coopers.”
The former are superheroic killing machines, like the Navy SEAL played by Wahlberg in last year’s action hit “Lone Survivor.” The latter are fragile ticking time bombs, like the PTSD-afflicted Navy SEAL personified by Cooper in the Oscar-nominated “American Sniper.”
A range of veterans advocates are pushing to diversify that picture. Why not, they say, have more Ed O’Neill types?
Fans of “Modern Family” would be forgiven for not thinking of the TV sitcom star’s character, Jay Pritchett, as a military guy. He’s a doughy, sarcastic businessman, neither muscle-bound nor scarred. Every so often he just happens to mention that he used to be in the Navy. It’s a subtle and matter-of-fact portrayal, say advocates – and it’s all too rare in popular culture’s treatment of the military.
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“My stepbrother is in the military, and he always wishes that the movies would be a better advocate for the American soldier,” actor Ethan Hawke said during an interview to promote “Good Kill,” a new drama about drone warfare. “Hollywood has a bad habit of either being so nationalistic and flag-waving that it kind of dehumanizes everybody and makes it a recruitment tool, or being so left-wing with conspiracy theories that project all of this negativity. Of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle.”
At a time when only 0.5 percent of the population is on active duty, many in the military community argue that even the cinema offerings that attempt to give a sympathetic portrayal of soldiers and veterans – such as the acclaimed “American Sniper” – end up breeding harmful stereotypes.
Recent films have also portrayed vets as murderers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (“In the Valley of Elah,” “Redacted”); as deserters suffering from PTSD (“Stop-Loss”); and as mavericks so addicted to combat that they can’t reintegrate into American society (“The Hurt Locker”).
“People believe what they see in the movies,” said Laura Law-Millett, a veteran who founded Washington’s annual GI Film Festival with her civilian husband, Brandon Millett. “If someone had seen some of these films who had never met anyone in the military, prior to about 2007, they would say, ‘Oh, so everyone who joins the Army becomes a drug dealer or a rapist or a murderer?’”
Entertainment has a way of shaping public opinion. “Jaws” left beachgoers nervous about swimming for years, even though sharks kill fewer people than vending machines. Repeated portrayals of Mafia culture have left the Italian American community saddled with unwanted baggage. But can pop culture be used to fight the stereotypes it created?
Chris Marvin hopes so. The managing director of the veteran advocacy group Got Your 6 (military-speak for “got your back”) is a retired Army officer and helicopter pilot who was wounded in Afghanistan. He says he saw the misconceptions firsthand when he returned from combat.
“I’ve always been of the opinion that people thought we were [either] broken, heroes or both,” he said. “Now we have data on it.” A recent study by Got Your 6, he said, found that “people are extremely more likely to see a homeless person and think he’s a veteran, even when it’s not true.”
According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 11 percent of the homeless population are vets.
Hollywood isn’t entirely to blame. The news media is also more likely to gravitate to stories about horrific atrocities or dramatic triumphs over adversity than humdrum tales of a soldier returning home, getting a job and starting a family – even if that’s the reality of what most end up doing.
“It’s the old ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ thing,” said Dale Dye, a retired Marine captain who did multiple tours in Vietnam. He went on to be a technical adviser on “Platoon” and have a successful career in Hollywood. “We look for this, and we develop these false ideas. And I guess it’s a hangover from the Vietnam days: Everybody who ever wore a uniform and went to war must be damaged goods.”
Seal of approval
Got Your 6 recently started a certification program for movies and television shows. Filmmakers or TV showrunners can apply to have a panel review a military-themed project; if it’s deemed “reasonable and accurate,” it gets a seal of approval.
Marvin appreciates the way a big movie can get people talking, but he sees a greater opportunity in the less overt instances of militarism in pop culture, especially the example of O’Neill’s character on “Modern Family.”
“He’s just a guy who used to be in the Navy, which is a really important portrayal for what we’re trying to do,” Marvin said. “If we had hundreds of those throughout television, our society would have a much more normalized view of who veterans are.”
The 2015 Veteran Economic Opportunity Report, sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs, found that the median income of post-9/11 veterans is 11 percent higher than non-veterans in a similar demographic. And the unemployment rate among veterans is lower than non-veterans. The 2015 Veterans Civic Health Index indicates that onetime service members tend to vote, volunteer and connect with neighbors more frequently than their civilian counterparts.
PTSD in the minority
And then there are the psychological effects. Between 11 and 20 percent of soldiers returning from combat experience post-traumatic stress – which may sound like a lot, but it’s hardly a majority. And not enough to justify the impulse of so many civilians to ask veterans about their mental health.
Kevin Lacz was a Navy SEAL stationed overseas alongside Chris Kyle, the real-life subject of “American Sniper.” Lacz worked on the film as a technical adviser, and the drama’s star, Cooper, convinced director Clint Eastwood to hire the veteran to play himself in the movie.
“People always ask, ‘Do you have issues reintegrating?’” Lacz said. “And I don’t. I didn’t. I like to articulate the experiences I’ve been through, and that helps me tell that story and educate people.”
“American Sniper” was a massive box office hit and a rare blockbuster about war in the Middle East. (“Lone Survivor” was another.) Marvin hailed “Sniper’s” success because of the way it plumbed the issues facing returning veterans. Dye said he appreciated the nuanced human story it told: Here was a husband and a father, as well as a vet, and he was a complicated man.
And yet, even that more complex portrayal of a soldier might have given some false impressions.
“I think people watch ‘Sniper’ and they get focused on the PTSD element or the hint of PTSD, and I think they overstretch it,” Lacz said. “PTSD is something good to talk about, but I think [the movie] overstated it with Chris, personally.”
Browsing the submissions of this year’s GI Film Festival, which ends Sunday, there’s some indication Hollywood may be getting the message. Every year, certain themes emerge. For a while, about 80 percent of the festival’s entries dealt in some way with post-traumatic stress disorder, Millett said.
This year, the dominant theme is relationships. It’s all about soldiers returning from combat and reintegrating into society.