There are a lot of movies about the military out there. From Gone with the Wind to Lone Survivor, these movies span generations but tell similar stories of love and loss.
While it’s important that these stories are represented in the media, Hollywood doesn’t always do the best job of it. It’s an industry meant more for selling tickets than getting the facts straight. But that’s the great part about documentaries — they’re made for the express purpose of documenting reality, whether it’s to educate people or to capture a little piece of history inside the film reel.
If you really want to know about war, a documentary might be the closest you’ll get to understanding the real sacrifice that comes with the military oath. So let’s take a look at the 10 best military documentaries, and the pieces of history they sought to capture.
Also Read: The Best Military Movies Ever Made
Best Military Documentaries
10. The Civil War (1990)
Well-known war documentarian Ken Burns was at the helm of this one. Rather than a single film, The Civil War is a nine-part series that was first aired on PBS in September of 1990. It’s actually the most-watched program ever to air on PBS. It focuses on mixing contemporary cinematography with old photographs from wartime, as well as voice overs that narrate the parts of key figures. The Civil War serves as the basis for many Americans’ knowledge of this critical time in history.
9. They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
One of the most recent World War I documentaries — and one of the best military documentaries of all time — this film by Peter Jackson is a new take on an old war. It uses state-of-the-art film technology to revitalize archival footage from the time. In fact, this original footage was previously unseen before it was colorized for the film, and the audio came from BBC and Imperial War Museum interviews of British servicemen who experienced World War I firsthand.
8. The Battle of Midway (1942)
This short documentary was released all the way back in 1942, so you can’t get closer to World War II than this. It showcases a montage of color footage from the Battle of Midway — a famous naval battle that took place six months after Pearl Harbor — and voices that include Henry Fonda. This film not only teaches you valuable history, but it takes you back to that moment in time; seen through the lens of war.
7. The Battle of San Pietro (1945)
Another old documentary, The Battle of San Pietro explores a famous engagement in Italy in 1944. It’s one of the first uncensored examples of what war really looks like. Its release to the public was delayed because of how explicit it was — it shows the faces of dead soldiers as they’re wrapped mattress covers, after the U.S. Army had run out of body bags. While the film received criticism at the time, it can only be considered a relic of the war and of filmmaking, worthy of viewing today.
6. Last Days in Vietnam (2014)
The Last Days in Vietnam, as the title suggests, goes over the final weeks of the Vietnam War; as the North Vietnamese Army closed in on Saigon, and American soldiers struggled with the decision to leave, or to stay and try to save lives. The film has received positive reviews across the board, along with several ‘best documentary’ nominations.
““The Last Days of Vietnam,” at its core, is about moral courage — the bravery to confront the question of “who goes and who gets left behind,” as retired Army Colonel Stuart Herrington puts it.” Wrote Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post.
5. The War Tapes (2006)
The War Tapes, released in 2006, is one of the first documentaries that depicted the realities of the Iraq War. Director Deborah Scranton gave three U.S. soldiers cameras to document their experiences on. The soldiers — who were all different ages with different backgrounds — each filmed their fight during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The film juggles themes of loyalty and patriotism, juxtaposed with the burning question of why we were at war in the first place.
4. No End in Sight (2007)
This documentary also looks at the U.S. invasion of Iraq — although its theme is more clear. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson uses firsthand accounts from various military and government officials to shed light on what caused the Iraq War. It’s a critical look at both the conflict and the Bush administration, and a fascinating analysis of the true devastation of war.
3. Restrepo (2010)
One of the more famous war documentaries, Restrepo is a jarring film that follows a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan, 2007. When the unit was ambushed on patrol, PFC Juan S. Restrepo and another man were killed, setting the tone for the deployment. The documentary is narrated by several men from the platoon, and it places particular emphasis on brotherhood — love in the midst of tremendous loss. As the film ends, a caption reads: “In April 2010, the United States Army withdrew from the Korengal Valley. Nearly 50 American soldiers died fighting there.”
2. The Tillman Story (2010)
Pat Tillman is one of the most recognized names in military history. A former NFL star, Tillman took the military oath after 9/11 and went on to become an Army Ranger. He gave up a multimillion-dollar contract to serve his country — and his selfless service is part of what made him so revered. The Tillman Story tells the tale of his family’s search for answers after his sudden death in Afghanistan in 2004.
1. Last Men in Aleppo (2017)
Although this film isn’t about an American war, it’s still a war that’s affected us. Last Men in Aleppo documents life in Aleppo, Syria, during their civil war, particularly the life and work of the White Helmets. The White Helmets are a group of Syrian citizens who run toward the bombs that rain down from the sky — an effort to save the lives of the innocents who are caught up in the ongoing bloodshed. Since its release, the film has been nominated for multiple awards, and won the World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. It’s truly one of the best military documentaries ever made.