It’s no secret that movies get a lot wrong about firearms and the ways they’re used in a fight. From every 80’s protagonist refusing to shoulder their rifles when they fire, to the seemingly infinite magazine capacity in every hero’s gun, filmmakers have long prized what looks cool over what’s actually possible in their work, and to be honest, it’s hard to blame them. After all, diving sideways while firing pistols from each hand does look pretty badass, even if it’s just about the dumbest thing someone could do in a firefight.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule when it comes to Hollywood’s depictions of firefights–movies that manage to offer a realistic representation of how armed conflicts actually play out while still giving the audience something to get excited about. These movies may not be realistic from end to end, but each offers at least one firefight that was realistic enough to get even highly trained warfighters to inch up toward the edges of their seats.
Delta’s time to shine: “Sicario”
The border scene in 2015’s Sicario is worthy of study from multiple angles: as an exercise in film making, this scene puts on a clinic in tension building, and although some elements of the circumstances may not be entirely realistic, the way in which the ensuing firefight plays out offers a concise and brutal introduction to the capabilities boasted by the sorts of men that find their way onto an elite team like Delta.
Unlike the Chuck Norris depictions of Delta from the past, these men are short on words and heavy on action, using their skill sets to not only neutralize opponents, but to keep the situation as contained as possible. The tense lead up and rapid conclusion leaves the viewer with the same sense of continued stress even after the shooting stops that anyone who has ever been in a fight can relate to, despite the operators themselves who are seemingly unphased. As real special operators will often attest, it’s less about being unphased and more about getting the job done–but to the rest of us mere mortals, it looks pretty much the same.
The Gold Standard: “Saving Private Ryan”
When “Saving Private Ryan” premiered in 1998, I distinctly recall my parents returning home early from their long-planned date night. My father, a Vietnam veteran that had long struggled with elements of his service had been excited about the new Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg wartime epic, but found the opening scene depicting the graphic reality of the Normandy invasion of World War II to be too realistic to handle. My dad, who never spoke of his time deployed, chose to leave the theater and spent the rest of the evening sitting quietly in his room.
This list is, in spirit, a celebration of realism in cinema, but realism has a weight to it, and sometimes, that weight can feel too heavy to manage. A number of veterans have echoed my father’s sentiments about the film (he did eventually watch it at home by himself), calling that opening sequence, often heralded as a masterpiece of film making, one of the hardest scenes they’ve ever managed to watch.
Val Kilmer helps train Green Berets: “Heat”
The dramatic ten-minute shootout in “Heat” has become legendary in Hollywood for good reason. For six weeks, the film’s production team closed down parts of downtown Los Angeles every Saturday and Sunday to turn the city into a war zone, and the actors came prepared to do their parts. Production brought in real British SAS operatives to train the actors in real combat tactics at the nearby L.A. County Sheriff’s combat shooting ranges.
Legend has it that Val Kilmer took to the training so well that the shot of him laying down fire in multiple directions and reloading his weapon (without the scene cutting) has been shown at Fort Bragg as a part of training for American Green Berets. Marines training at MCRD San Diego have also been shown this firefight from “Heat” as a depiction of how to effectively retreat under fire.