The 10 Best Movies About the Vietnam War

  • 05/02/2020
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The war has greatly impacted American culture since U.S. involvement in Vietnam began in the early '60s. Naturally, it has served as the setting and subject matter for countless films of varying renown, both narrative features and documentaries. Here, we look at the ten best films to tackle the complicated topic in realistic, brutal, and honest ways...

10. The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)

Famed documentarian Errol Morris won an Oscar for this intimate portrait of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who served under both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson during the height of the war in Vietnam. Combining personal interviews and archival footage, the controversial McNamara attempts to understand his complicated legacy as the man responsible for much of the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

9. Rescue Dawn (2006)

Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, and Jeremy Davies deliver staggering, physically brutal performances as three prisoners of war in Werner Herzog's intimate depiction of survival in Vietnam—a surprising departure from the director's more experimental, arthouse ventures. Bale stars as the real-life Dieter Dengler, a Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos, imprisoned, and routinely tortured for six months before his rescue. 

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8. Coming Home (1978)

Jon Voight and Jane Fonda both earned Oscars for their roles in Hal Ashby's quiet drama—the latter's win most controversial considering her infamous anti-war stance and the 1972 trip to North Vietnam that earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane." Fonda plays a woman whose husband serves in active combat in Vietnam and volunteers at a local VA hospital. There she meets (and begins an affair with) a paraplegic Vietnam vet who struggles to reconcile his experience in the war—and his re-introduction to a country in which he feels unwelcome.

7. Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Robin Williams earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Adrian Cronauer, a DJ who goes to Vietnam to bring an inspired liveliness and entertainment to the Armed Forces Radio. He naturally clashes with the top brass who find his comic delivery too unorthodox for such a serious environment. But he also experiences the realities of war first-hand in his interaction with the Vietnamese, and slowly learns the truths that don't wind up on the broadcast. 

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6. Born on the Fourth of July (1989)

One of Oliver Stone's many looks at the Vietnam war (for which he won his second Best Director Oscar), Born of the Fourth of July is based on the memoir of anti-war activist Ron Kovic (played by Tom Cruise) and tells the story of the man's earnest quest to serve his country in Vietnam. Once he's paralyzed in the war, he returns home to a country he feels has betrayed him and harnesses his anger into activism by speaking out against it.

5. Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone won his first Oscar for Best Director for Platoon (which itself earned the Best Picture statue). Charlie Sheen stars as a young recruit who gives up his privileged spot in college to volunteer for duty in Vietnam. He quickly learns he is but a number rather than a vital player in the conflict, and he sees the worst of humanity—on both sides of the war—and suffers a psychological break after witnessing the massacre of a village of innocents at the hands of members of his platoon. 

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4. Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Stanley Kubrick's take on the war film is, naturally, slightly off-center. Starring Matthew Modine as a young Marine, Full Metal Jacket says more about the military itself rather than the conflict in which it participates, exposing the dehuminazation process that begins in boot-camp training and ultimately sees its tragic end in the extreme, outlandish arena of the battlefield.

3. Apocalypse Now (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola's war epic takes inspiration from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, changing the novel's setting from the Belgian Congo to the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Martin Sheen stars as a disaffected Army captain who is tasked with a secret mission to go deep into the jungle and take out a Green Beret Colonel named Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has gone rogue and established himself as a local god. Apocalypse Now exposes the insanity and absurdity of war, and the way in which it can corrupt anyone in its wake. 

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2. Hearts and Minds (1974)

eter Davis's Oscar-winning documentary exposes the American influence in Vietnam and the long, seemingly endless war that the United States government prolonged. Juxtaposing interviews with military officials with scenes of brutal violence, the film gave a voice to the Vietnamese people caught within the conflict—individuals who until that point were unseen and unheard in favor of American propaganda.

1. The Deer Hunter (1978)

Michael Cimino's grand and majestic war epic earned five Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Walken). Three friends from a small Pennsylvania town enlist and go to Vietnam; after they are ultimately captured by the North Vietnamese Army and imprisoned in a camp, they are forced to play Russian roulette for the entertainment of their captors. The Deer Hunter is the greatest film about the Vietnam War, exposing not just the hell of battle but the ways in which it broke the psyche of those who experienced its conflicts. 

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