Movies can be as inspirational as books to an author, and while the unique power of this medium cannot be reproduced on the page, it can fuel an author’s imagination and, often, plant the seeds for truly interesting ideas. Here are just a sampling of movies and TV that have offered inspiration to Bennett R. Coles:
The Hunt for Red October (1990)
Based on the best-selling novel that made both Tom Clancy and his character Jack Ryan household names, the movie takes what is an intricate and leisurely story in print and compresses it down into a thrilling, fast-paced adventure – and all for the better. Telling the story of a Soviet ballistic missile submarine commander trying to defect with his boat and crew, and the American CIA analyst roped into trying to find him, the movie is beautifully-filmed with cutting edge (for the time) underwater graphics. While realism is left somewhat behind by pace and good story-telling, the clear cooperation of the US Navy gives the movie a sense of the concrete that makes it very believable.
A Few Good Men (1992)
A military legal drama made famous by Jack Nicholson’s Marine colonel roaring “You can’t handle the truth!” while on the stand, A Few Good Men is an excellent examination of both military and legal ethics. The two young marines on trial for murder are both admirable and sympathetic characters, despite the fact that the opening scene of the movie shows them committing a heinous crime. The passion of Demi Moore’s lawyer character plays well against the cynicism of Tom Cruise, and while she is definitely the more likeable character it is his fundamental understanding of what the law is (and what it can and cannot do) that fuels the main conflict. An outstanding cast of supporting characters adds to the rich tapestry of this modern tale of right and wrong.
Courage Under Fire (1996)
A medical helicopter goes down behind enemy lines during the Gulf War, and the pilot is nominated posthumously for the Medal of Honour. Back in the US, a senior tank commander who is haunted by a terrible mistake he made in combat is assigned to investigate whether the pilot deserves the honour. His investigation via interviews with the surviving helicopter crew members slowly reveals the terrible truth of what happened on the ground in Iraq. A fine military drama that weaves the story of the tank commander’s own personal torment with ever-more-revealing flash-back narratives from Iraq, Courage Under Fire is a poignant look at the emotional and psychological harm that can befall any soldier. Released at a time when post-traumatic stress disorder was only just becoming part of the public consciousness, this movie was both timely and deeply entertaining.
Band of Brothers (2001)
A 10-part miniseries produced for HBO by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, this is the story of Easy Company, one of the American Airborne units that fought in World War II. At times humorous, at times troubling, at times thrilling action, Band of Brothers is perhaps the finest portrayal of soldiers in the Second World War ever made. It follows Easy Company through basic training, D-Day, Holland, the Battle of the Bulge, and finally to victory in Europe, with each episode focusing on different members of the ensemble cast. Very few of the characters are presented as heroic – rather they are all just regular young men from regular backgrounds, thrown into the horror and violence of war and forced to survive. Their camaraderie and strength are all the more inspiring because of this ordinariness, and the interviews with the actual soldiers who are portrayed in the series adds a profound realism to the story.
The Hurt Locker (2008)
A harsh, "in-the-trenches" account of America's war in Iraq, The Hurt Locker is an outstanding portrayal of the psychological effects of war on soldiers. Following a three-man EOD team through their tour, the story is ragged and at times confusing. But instead of detracting, this method of story-telling captures perfectly the ever-present sense of confusion and pointlessness so common for the soldier on the front lines. The larger context is unclear, and very quickly the soldier (and the viewer) cease to care: all that matters is whether they will survive the next few minutes. The characters are subtle and complex, and very believable. As a veteran myself, perhaps the most poignant moment in the entire film for me was when Sergeant James, having just returned from the war, stands in mute shock at the sheer volume of choice when he's asked to get some cereal for the shopping cart. The banality, the sheer insignificance of having to choose cereal lays bare the mundane nature of normal life which every soldier struggles to adapt to upon returning home. The Hurt Locker is an absolute must-see for anyone trying to understand the psychology of a soldier.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Yes, yes, the giant CG bugs and the communal shower scene. That’s what most people remember about Paul Verhoeven’s movie based very loosely on the Robert Heinlein book of the same name. And it’s true that on the surface this is a pure action movie filled with lots of good special effects and beautiful people who take their shirts off fairly regularly. It’s the perfect popcorn flick to just sit back, switch off the brain and enjoy. BUT, beneath that shiny surface there is more going on. The propaganda pieces that act almost like an ancient Greek chorus are one of the best parodies on government-controlled media ever made, and the subtleties of script and costume paint a very dark underlying picture of the society Rico and his friends come from. Anybody notice that Federation uniforms hearken back to Nazis? One of the fascinating aspects of this movie is that it is clearly anti-fascist satire, although Heinlein’s book is often considered to be pro-fascist – Verhoeven picked a deliciously ironic story with which to make his point. And finally, Starship Troopers introduces the intriguing concept of heroes – genuinely good people – fighting bravely and unwittingly for the wrong side in a war. While it is nothing like the book, the movie Starship Troopers is a multi-layered and intelligent examination of society – and far from being pretentious, any movie-going yahoo can still enjoy it.
Starship Troopers II: Hero of the Federation (2004)
Yes, there was a sequel. It was never released in theaters, was produced on a shoe-string budget, and bears almost no resemblance to its predecessor. Nor does it even try. Unlike the first movie, which is sweeping in scope and spans many worlds over at least two years, Starship Troopers II takes place entirely in one location over the course of little more than one day. It is a sombre movie, continuing the theme of good people fighting a bad war, but in a more personal light. The soldiers in this movie are hardened, with few illusions left of glory or even victory – all they want to do is survive another hour. Most of the movie takes the tone of the classic thriller where a group of people are trapped somewhere and they know an unseen killer is near. It loses some of its power as it descends for a few minutes into more of a slasher-flick, but recovers at the end with a revisitation of the anti-propaganda satire its predecessor introduced so subtly.
Starship Troopers III: Marauder (2008)
Okay, maybe three was pushing it. The third installment in the Starship Troopers saga is a throwback to the original, with lots of beautiful people and shoot-em-up action. Unfortunately, it lacks the thoughtful depth of the first movie, and while it does continue the same underlying themes, it does so which such a heavy hand that there is little left for the viewer to ponder. This movie is exactly what everyone thinks the first movie was: a great action film to kick back and take in with no thinking required. And is that so bad?
Battlestar Galactica (TV 2004-2009)
There were certainly some raised eyebrows when this old 70’s cheese-fest was revived for a new series, but no-one could have predicted the depth, detail and sheer brilliance that would emerge on the small screen. Hot, human-looking cylons, the destruction of the human race, outstanding military realism and harsh portrayals of a decadent society collapsing. And that all in the first, 3-hour episode. What followed were four seasons of intrigue, suspense, humour, action and one surprising development after another. It was like producers David Eick and Ronald D. Moore sat down one day and said: “What if the 1970’s BSG scenario actually happened? What would it really be like?” Leaving behind any thoughts of fantastic space opera, their creation is one of the best television drama series ever made. Period. The fact that it’s set in space and presents a military so realistic in its thought processes, language and tactics is just icing on the cake.
Razor (TV 2007)
A 90-minute movie created within the Battlestar Galactica universe but independent of the series, Razor follows the story of the Battlestar Pegasus, the other human warship to survive the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. Pegasus and her crew are part of the regular TV series, but many of the mysteries surrounding her escape and her captain are not fully explained until Razor explodes on the screen. Introducing a new main character and integrating seamlessly with the cast of BSG, Razor is a harsh, thrilling story of loss, hatred and redemption. It is arguably the finest “episode” in the entire BSG saga.
Firefly (TV 2002)
Probably the least-appreciated, best TV show of the decade, Joss Whedon’s Firefly broke new ground in creating a bonafide “space-western” genre centered around the ensemble cast of nine crew members aboard a merchant ship of the old, Firefly class. Although only 14 episodes were made, each one stands tall as a brilliant story filled with action, romance, humour, intrigue and a perceptive examination of human beings. Unlike many late 20th-century visions of the future, Firefly doesn’t present either a utopian or a post-apocalyptic future; rather, it suggests that humans and society are going to stay pretty much the same. Technology will change, circumstances will change, but people will always be people. The concerns and struggles that the characters face are very recognizable to viewers today, and this universal connectedness is one of Firefly’s greatest strengths.
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
A compelling documentary led by Al Gore to educate on the reality and the threat of global warming, this film is too blunt and yet too entertaining to ignore. Beautifully titled, it outlines many of the facts about our environment that are all too clear and yet are often ignored because to acknowledge them could possibly cause great inconvenience to our comfortable lives. It is well worth seeing, even if you don’t agree with its conclusions, as the simple presentation of evidence is very much worth thinking about.
Talk about hitting the ground running. Coles doesn’t pull any punches. The fast-moving pace of the story is terrific and makes it an absolute pleasure to read.