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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

At the Movies: Film and PTSD

Movies have the power to present difficult social or personal problems, offering the viewer an educational benefit alongside the usual entertainment value. Movies can bring the viewer closer to topics that are often hidden away from the general public's gaze.

Think: Philadelphia (HIV/AIDS discrimination); Boyz 'N the Hood (poverty/crime); A Beautiful Mind (mental illness); Dead Man Walking (capital punishment); I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (child abuse); or Rain Man (autism).

By exploring these issues in provocative -- even entertaining ways -- filmmakers go a long way in educating us.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

This page was updated on July 28, 2007.

Combat post-traumatic stress-related films allow us to examine PTSD through the cinematic lens, often offering therapeutic qualities to the viewer. From Psychiatric Times:

Theater, film, literature and poetry are forms of expression that allow artists and their audiences to explore the compelling issues of their lives. On a very basic level, the various forms of art are windows into the emotions and impulses that populate the human unconscious. Furthermore, art, both in its creation and its enjoyment, can be as healing for the psyche as psychotherapy. The themes explored in literature allow us to understand, from a different perspective, the difficult issues with which our patients grapple in therapy. Of all of the medical specialties, psychiatry may have the greatest affinity for the humanities. Psychiatry is inherently about the human psyche, a topic addressed by all of the arts in one way or another. Thus, psychotherapy and art are merely different approaches to the understanding of the human experience.

While some of the following movies may be too disturbing for the post-deployed veteran to watch, they may have educational value for those seeking to better understand the inner turmoil of a loved one with PTSD.

Vietnam-era Films Presenting PTSD

  • Taxi Driver (1976)
  • Coming Home (1978)
  • Apocalypse Now (1979)
  • The Deer Hunter (1979)
  • Return of the Soldier (1982)
  • Birdy (1984)
  • Born on the Fourth of July (1989)
  • Heaven and Earth (1993)
These movies unleash the inner mindset of combat veterans trying their best to cope with the trauma of war. Characters clearly exhibit classic symptoms of PTSD such as uncontrollable anger, emotional numbing, denial, keyed up startle responses, an interest in recreating traumatizing events, and substance abuse.

OEF/OIF PTSD Documentaries

The current crop of documentaries revealing the post-war issues troops returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are coping with include:

The Ground Truth: The Human Cost of War by director Patricia Foulkrod is probably one of the better films to date on the subject, allowing the stories to unfold through interviews and strong footage. Currently, it is available at Google Video. Trailer:

Other documentaries of note:

Feature Films

We are now beginning to see the first wave of feature films exploring the personal fallout of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The long-anticipated Paul Haggis ("Crash") film, In the Valley of Elah, released by Warner Independent Pictures arrives in theaters on September 14, 2007. The movie's genesis:

Readers of Playboy magazine were shocked by “Death and Dishonor,” Mark Boal’s investigative article published in the summer of 2004. Boal interviewed Lanny Davis, a former U.S. Army M.P., about the death of his son, who had been reported AWOL following a tour of duty in Baghdad. Davis, refus[ed] to accept the army’s version of his son’s disappearance...[and I don't want to give away any more of the plot line].

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron, Susan Sarandon and Jason Patric, "In the Valley of Elah" drives us into the darkest side of war's personal fallout and doesn't let up on the pedal until its shattering conclusion.

Other upcoming films to keep a lookout for:

In “Grace Is Gone,” directed by James C. Strouse and due in October from the Weinstein Company, John Cusack and two daughters struggle with the loss of a wife and mother who is killed on duty. Kimberly Peirce’s “Stop-Loss,” set for release in March by Paramount, meanwhile, casts Ryan Phillippe as a veteran who defies an order that would send him back to Iraq. ...

In October, for example, New Line Cinema will release “Rendition,” in which Reese Witherspoon plays a woman whose Egyptian-born husband is snared by a runaway counterterrorism apparatus. Paul Greengrass, the director of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” in which the bad guys belong to a similar rogue unit, is adapting Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book about the Green Zone in Baghdad, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City,” for Universal Pictures.

Brian De Palma’s “Redacted,” focusing on an Army squad that persecutes an Iraqi family, is to be released in December by Magnolia Pictures. And Sony Pictures is developing a film based on the story of Richard A. Clarke, the former national security official and Bush administration critic.

Independent Shorts

This short film by the Fryar Bros. submitted to Columbia College called "War Child" shows the life of one Iraq veteran (who inspired the work) after coming home from war. It presents PTSD very tastefully and in a sophisticated and poignant manner often missed in past post-Vietnam works:

This next short film, "RAIN" by Lee Abbott, follows two undercover cops who "find themselves in a dark situation. The roots of which lie in the haunted memories of the officer who has recently returned from 2 years of battle in Iraq. One violent explosion of his disillusionment, leaves his partner in a moral quandary."

And finally, "The Battle Within," which is based on a true story. "In 2004, Dan Solomon returned home from Iraq only to experience a common disorder among war veterans called PTSD."


Then there are some of the more low-brow, if I might characterize it as such, fare...almost comical representations of the experience of PTSD, overblown and camped-up versions accompanied by silly soundtracks and the clich├ęd form of the berserk veteran gone wild.

Combat Shock (1986)
The YouTube video clip begins with an entertaining intro:

A raw, violent, and uncompromising story of one man's battle with his inner demons and neighborhood scumbags. Frankie Dunlan is a depressed Vietnam veteran juggling disturbing memories of his wartime experiences. After the war, he can't find work and his filthy slum-level apartment is in an urban combat zone. The stress of that, combined with his wife nagging him about their mutant baby are driving Frankie to the brink of sanity. He decides to take a more proactive approach to dealing with his PTSD and sets out to rid his neighborhood of its depravity. He battles the pimps and gangs with guns, guerilla warfare and the hand-to-hand combat he used in Southeast Asia. This grimy and disturbing Troma release is a potent, skid row hybrid of ERASERHEAD and TAXI DRIVER with an ending that is sure to both shock and haunt you.

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