Life is war, and war is hell, and dear God did this man love it so. Patton isn’t so much a movie as it is a vessel for the force of nature that was General George S. Patton, here channeled through a truly astonishing, intimidating and Oscar-winning performance by a force of nature in his own right, George C. Scott. Patton was a famous (and some would indeed say infamous) WWII tank commander, with the film following his career from his stationing in North Africa through the invasion of Germany and into the fall of the Third Reich. Even when a battle wasn’t being fought, Patton was always at war — indeed, it was his seething temper (the scene where he slaps a hospitalized soldier is one of the film’s many jaw-dropping moments) and his habit of not always following orders led to him being relieved as the post-war Occupation Commander of Germany. No one saluted the flag with such grim determination — and boiling anger — as George S. Patton.
The highs and lows of America’s most famous political family is re-imagined as a Godfather-style melodrama in this top-notch miniseries, with Joe Kennedy, Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) portrayed as an over-ambitious, power-hungry and mildly corrupt patriot looking to rise to the throne via his sons; John F. Kennedy (Greg Kinnear) is the handsome, womanizing Prince with the trophy wife and the bad back; and Bobby Kennedy (Barry Pepper) is the true mastermind behind it all, a brilliant, fiercely dedicated and somewhat self-loathing statesman with eleven kids. The Kennedys is as fascinating as it sounds, a compelling and extremely entertaining look at one of the most turbulent times in American history through the eyes of rich men from New England — to say the miniseries “takes liberties” with events and characterizations is the understatement of the year, but you can’t say the filmmakers don’t know how to put on a good show. Of the excellent ensemble cast, Pepper is tops, delivering not only a spot-on impersonation of the youngest Kennedy brother but also an insightful interpretation of a man doomed to always be the baby of the family — and therefore the one with the most to prove.
Director John Irvin’s bloody account of one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War, Hamburger Hill follows the U.S. Army’s 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, part of the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division (otherwise known as the “Screaming Eagles”) and their attack on “Hill 937,” an extremely well-fortified position of the North Vietnamese army. The carnage began on May 10, 1969 and pretty much didn’t stop until the hill was taken ten days later. The use of the Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” on the soundtrack pretty much sums it up — Irvin pulls no punches in showing just how unrelentingly, seemingly impossibly brutal war can be in this almost-classic that was unfortunately overshadowed by the more high-profile Vietnam Wars films released in 1986 and ’87, including Oliver Stone‘s Platoon and Stanley Kubrick‘s Full Metal Jacket. Those might be technically “better” films, but Hamburger Hill is definitely on top when it comes to portraying the sense of fierce camaraderie that comes from being in a nightmarish situation together — the soldiers bond hard, and we bond with them.
Field of Dreams shouldn’t work at all, but there it is, one of the most beloved American films of all time — and pretty much deservedly so. How in the hell did director Phil Alden Robinson and star Kevin Costner pull off the story of a poor Iowa farmer who, though some sort of divine inspiration (“If you build it, he will come”), builds a baseball field in the middle of his corn patch — which ends up being the playing ground for the ghosts of ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and the other players disgraced in the 1919 Black Sox scandal? What seems like an absurd premise actually makes for a touching and insightful homage to baseball, to the working man, to fathers and sons… and to dreaming — and living — the seemingly impossible American dream. Field of Dreams features one of Costner’s most relaxed and naturalistic performances, with Ray Liotta making for a charming and whimsical Shoeless Joe and James Earl Jones stealing the show as a former ’60s activist with an unrealized fantasy of playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers at Ebbets Field. You also get the last film appearance of Burt Lancaster as Archibald ‘Moonlight’ Graham, who played one Major League game for the New York Giants but was never given a turn at bat. Definitely revisit this one when you get a chance — there’s true movie magic at work here.
Director Edward Zwick’s underrated 1996 military drama was one of the first Hollywood movies to depict the 1991 Gulf War and remains one of the best examinations of modern-day warfare to date. Denzel Washington, reuniting with Zwick after his Oscar-winning turn in Glory, plays a disgraced Army officer with a simple desk job that’s called upon to determine whether Army Captain Karen Walden (Meg Ryan) should be the first woman to receive (posthumously) the Medal of Honor for valor in combat — his investigation uncovers a series of sinister conspiracies and cover-ups, with Staff Sergeant Monfriez (Lou Diamond Phillips) insisting that Walden was a coward to the point of being more than a little suspicious. The terrific supporting cast includes Matt Damon (in one of his first starring roles), Michael Moriarty and Scott Glenn, but the film pretty much belongs to Ryan due to her excellent (and rather rare) dramatic performance as a soldier who seems more a legend than human. Courage Under Fire is a taut and rather non-traditional “courtroom thriller” as well as a tense mystery that will have you second-guessing all the way to the extremely satisfying conclusion.