Memorial Day

May 29, 2017

Today marks the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s birth. It is fitting then, seeing whereas it is also Memorial Day 2017, that we might consider this JFK quote as we pause a moment to reflect upon the purpose of this holiday. “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter the words, but to live by them.”


Small armies of filmmakers have labored to bring the stories of those who’ve fallen in battle to a full and profound vibrancy with their work through the decades. Photographic evidence of the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ reaches as far back as the Civil War, when still images of deceased soldiers began to sear into the national consciousness and provoked a deeper consideration about the legions of individual lives lost—once brilliantly alive and pulsing with hope and purpose–that too often fade into a blur of statistics.

Some works of documentary films that bring to the fore war’s true cost readily come to mind, and remind us that “freedom isn’t free.” We’d love to hear of films dealing with this topic that stand out for you.

“Arlington: In Eternal Vigil” dir. John N. Damoose (2006)
“Arlington: In Eternal Vigil” explores the history of Arlington National Cemetery – from a family farm to the center of the Civil War and then finally a national treasure where the country’s greatest heroes are now buried. Interviews include retired General Richard B. Myers (former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George W. Bush), retired Senator Bob Dole and family members of those buried in the cemetery.

“Art of War” (2008)
The period of 1914-1918 provided an entire catalogue of art movements, from impressionism, expressionism, realism, cubism, futurism and more. Images of battlefields and trenches permeated the painting of the day, and art was a method of healing for many of those who fought.

“The Medal” (2006)
“The Medal” refers to the storied Congressional Medal of Honor – an honor awarded by the President of the United States to military personnel who have demonstrated immense courage by going above and beyond their call of duty. Through interviews with former medal recipients, “The Medal” weaves a powerful narrative that not only recounts stories of heroism, but also examines the emotional toll taken on the honorees who, despite having been honored, live with a certain amount of regret as they were oftentimes the only ones to survive.

Last Letters Home: Voices of American Troops from the Battlefields of Iraq is a 2004-hour-long HBO documentary by Bill Couturié about U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq War. Touching and powerful, Last Letters Home is an emotional documentary that features 10 families reading aloud the last letters they received from loved ones who lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Presented in a suitably straightforward, unembellished style by director Bill Couturié (director of HBO’s Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam), the film displays close-up pictures of the soldiers in military and civilian life as family members read and reminisce (of the 10 soldiers profiled, the oldest was 51 years old; the youngest was only 19). In the end, this film, which premiered on HBO, is really about the families left behind to mourn and honor the lives of the fallen.