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Honor heroes past and present with the 10 best streaming war movies

Nick Hastings
Dunkirk

Fictionalizing war can be controversial. After all, lionizing participants in bloody conflict seems to go against the notion that violence is bad — that wars should not be remembered romantically, but regretfully and respectfully. We remember wars not just for their death tolls, but also for the bravery of those who fought in them and those who worked to end them.

Memorial Day originated in 1868 as “Decoration Day,” an opportunity for Americans to mourn soldiers who perished in the Civil War. Today, the holiday celebrates the service of those enlisted in the U.S. military — current and former — honoring their commitment to the country and its ideals, and their sacrifices in its name. Depictions of war on the big screen tend to do the same, often remembering real-life heroes who gave all they had to protect their nation.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of the best and most inspirational war movies for you to stream this Memorial Day. Not every movie is about American soldiers, but remember: American soldiers aren’t the only ones who made sacrifices for our freedom.

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s loaded résumé continues to grow in size and quality, as evidenced by Dunkirk, which earned eight Academy Award nominations — including for Best Picture and Best Director — and won three. The immensely atmospheric film tells of the evacuation of British troops from the French beachhead at Dunkirk during World War II, ping-ponging between different perspectives in not-quite-chronological order. While admirable performances from Tom Hardy and Mark Ryland received acclaim (not to mention those of newcomers Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Barry Keoghan, and One Direction singer Harry Styles), the real star here is the cinematography and sound editing, which help make Dunkirk one of the most astonishing filmgoing experiences in recent memory.

Watch it now on:

HBO Go HBO Now

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb 

Stanley Kubrick’s dark, satirical comedy about the tensions of the Cold War era and the threat of nuclear war has endured for decades, not only remaining poignantly relevant today, but also immensely funny. The film stars the many-faced Peter Sellers as three of his most memorable characters, including the bumbling Group Cpt. Lionel Mandrake and German scientist Dr. Strangelove, while George C. Scott delivers his own top-notch performance as Gen. “Buck” Turgidson. The film takes place in the wake of a U.S. general’s sudden psychological breakdown, as the world finds itself on the fast track to nuclear annihilation and a group of U.S. government and military officials work frantically to prevent the impending doomsday. Dr. Strangelove … is hardly a “war movie” in the traditional sense, but as with several of Kubrick’s entries, it’s required viewing for any true film buff.

Watch it now on:

Hulu

Good Morning, Vietnam

Starring the late Robin Williams in one of the first leading roles of his career, Good Morning, Vietnam is a film loosely based on the exploits of U.S. Air Force radio DJ Adrian Cronauer. Williams stars as a manic radio DJ sent to help raise morale in Vietnam, only to find himself in trouble with his superiors for “irrelevant indecency” again and again. Few films approach the Vietnam War with anything other than gravitas, but Good Morning, Vietnam manages to humanize the fighters on both sides of the conflict. The film’s writing and Williams’ splendid performance imbue an ostensible comedy with more emotion and depth than a film from the genre has any right to convey.

Watch now on:

HBO Go HBO Now

Full Metal Jacket

Stanley Kubrick’s films are often so jarring, unexpected, and offputting on first watch that they’re nearly impossible to associate with any other director. Full Metal Jacket, a 1987 two-act ordeal that follows a platoon of marine recruits through basic training and the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive, is no different. It’s a grim tale adapted from a Gustav Hasford novel, and as such, it’s filled with eclectic elements that examine brainwashing, our own human limitations, and the emotional challenges of war. The incredible cast keeps it all afloat — particularly the late R. Lee Ermey as the foulmouthed gunnery sergeant — though often it seems like the characters function as mere set pieces amid Kubrick’s ominous, fantastical landscapes. It never feels quite real, but then again, perhaps that’s the point.

Watch it now on:

Netflix

Defiance

Defiance takes us back to the European theatre, centering on a group of Jewish Belarusian refugees led by the four Bielski brothers: Tuvia (Daniel Craig), Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael (Jamie Bell), and Aron (George MacKay). The group takes shelter in a forest and builds a community, adding more refugees by the day and ambushing German troops where possible. As unrest begins to grow within the group, disagreements between the Bielskis threaten to endanger the family (and the entire community). Defiance paints a stark picture of desperation, but also a picture of strength in numbers, as displaced people overcome personal tragedies to work together and survive in a time of unthinkable peril.

Watch it now on:

Netflix

Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List may not offer much in the way of battle action, but it’s a war movie through and through. Based on historical events, the film tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist looking to make a profit during World War II. Schindler, having bribed Nazi officials, sets up a factory in Poland, hiring mostly Jewish workers (they cost less). When he sees Nazi soldiers massacre a Jewish ghetto, Schindler decides he must do what he can to save as many Jews as he can, spending his fortune and trying to curry favor with a sadistic SS officer, Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes). Although he is not often listed among the great auteur directors, Steven Spielberg shows the depth of his talent throughout Schindler’s List, shooting the film in stark black-and-white, and employing some beautiful, subtle tracking shots.

Watch it now on:

Netflix

The Hurt Locker

This widely acclaimed 2010 drama tied a rocket to the careers of leading man Jeremy Renner and director Kathryn Bigelow — who became the first woman to earn a Best Director Oscar. An American Explosive Ordinance Disposal team — or, in common tongue, a bomb squad — gets a new leader after their captain is killed by an explosive in Iraq. The film explores the harrowing nature of the team’s work and the psychological toll taken on different members of the squad. Despite taking some liberties and thereby earning scorn from some military veterans, The Hurt Locker offers a tense, emotional vision of war that few films dare to even attempt.

Watch it now on:

Prime Video

The Imitation Game

Not all soldiers fight on the front lines, and not all soldiers subscribe to stereotypical ideals of masculinity. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a masterful performance as British codebreaker Alan Turing, whose ability to decipher the German Enigma machine proved vital to the Allied victory in World War II. Nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning for Best Adapted Screenplay) and five Golden Globes, director Morten Tyldum’s stirring film was lauded by the Human Rights Campaign for its portrayal of Turing’s legacy as a gay man. Keira Knightley and Charles Dance shine in supporting roles.

Watch it now on:

Netflix

The Wall

This taut thriller brings together two quintessentially American things — military heroism and John Cena — culminating in an hourlong standoff that feels primed to explode at any moment. A U.S. Army sniper (Cena) and his spotter (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are dispatched to investigate a pipeline in Iraq when Cena’s character is badly wounded by a hidden enemy sniper. Sgt. Allen (Taylor-Johnson) finds himself trapped behind a brick wall with no recourse, as the sniper tries to coax him out of cover while Sgt. Matthews (Cena) lays dying in the dust. Eventually, Allen and the Iraqi begin to communicate via radio, as Allen tries to concoct a plan to get out alive. 

Watch it now on:

Prime Video

Wonder Woman

Technically, Wonder Woman is more about Diana Prince’s (Gal Gadot) ascent from Amazonian princess to warrior goddess/superhero, but with World War I serving as the vehicle for her character development, it is also very on theme. The first act of the film takes place on the shrouded, idyllic island of Themyscira, where Diana trains alongside the legendary Amazonian warrior women. When an Allied spy (Chris Pine) crash-lands near the island, leading the German army to discover Themyscira, Diana is forced into combat to protect her home and, indeed, the whole world. The movie deftly weaves a romance plot between stunningly choreographed action scenes featuring Gadot pummeling helpless soldiers and facing off against supernaturally gifted foes (Danny Huston, Elena Anaya).

Watch now on:

HBO Go HBO Now