7 Of The Best (And Most Disturbing) War Documentaries

December 11, 2015

Perhaps as an unfortunate reflection of the times, the theater of war has been the focus of some excellent (if harrowing) fictional movies in recent years, as well as some thought-provoking dramatization of real events.

But of course, war by its very nature doesn’t always need dramatizing and for those who prefer to not mix their fact and fiction on the same plate, there are always war documentaries…

marines in fallujah fire weapon

1. Restrepo (2010)

Conflict Covered: Afghanistan War

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Why It’s So Good: A powerhouse example of cinema verite, Restrepo never falls afoul of the common war documentary pitfall of becoming bogged down in political point making. In fact, it doesn’t even attempt to offer up a commentary, and in doing so we’re given an alarmingly honest portrayal of the Afghan conflict courtesy of those embroiled in it.

2. The Fog of War (2003)

Conflict Covered: Numerous

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Why It’s So Good: Subtitled Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara and directed by Errol Morris, the documentary centers around a series of interviews with the titular former Secretary of Defense. From WWII to the Cuban Missile Crisis and illustrated with archival footage and home video, McNamara holds nothing back as he discusses with great experience what can be learned from some of the most divisive and nuanced conflicts in living memory.

3. Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)

Conflict Covered: The War on Terror

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Why It’s So Good: One of the first (if not the first) documentaries to question the official narrative that was playing out in popular culture while the Vietnam War was waged, Winter Soldier is a collection of stories—and confessions—from the front lines. One of the hardest movies on this list to get through, it has an eerie and unsettling resonance with current events.

4. Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Conflict Covered: Iraq War

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%

Why It’s So Good: Another well-crafted expose by war documentarian Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure deftly covers one of the many ugly stories that emerged from the Iraq conflict: the torture and abuse of terror suspects held at Abu Ghraib by American troops. More importantly, it gets beneath the skin of the soldiers who were photographed committing these notorious acts, as well as examining the administrative culture which allowed them to occur.

6. No End In Sight (2007)

Conflict Covered: The War on Terror

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96%

Why It’s So Good: Possibly the closest a war documentary will ever get to a bona fide horror show, No End in Sight catalogs the series of decisions from within the Bush administration that culminated in the invasion of Iraq. Incredibly in-depth but accessible to any audience, Charles Ferguson’s comprehensive documentary is one that will probably cause your blood pressure to be a lot higher by the time the 100 minutes are up.

7. Last Days in Vietnam (2014)

Why It’s So Good: As the title suggests, this gracefully executed documentary – packed to the brim with drama, emotion and heroism – focuses in on the final events of the Vietnam War. The suspense of the closing scenes are as utterly thrilling as anything you’ll see in fiction, cementing Last Days as one of the best PBS documentaries ever produced.

Got any other favorites that we’ve missed? Let us know in the comments below, and if you’re looking to follow in the footsteps of these superb war documentarians, you might want to check out our guide to staying safe while shooting in live conflict zones.

[su_note]Learn more about the School of Documentary Filmmaking at the New York Film Academy by clicking here.[/su_note]