Memorial Day is that time Americans set aside each year to remember and honor the sacrifices of our fallen military veterans. But it’s also a day off from work, and for those who want to spend the day in front of their TV without feeling unpatriotic or ungrateful — relax, we’ve got you’ve covered. We’ve scoured the streaming services and digital rental outlets, and we’ve found nine movies (and one mini-series) that’ll fill your entire holiday with thoughtful, provocative, appropriate entertainment. By the time you’re done, our nation’s fighting forces may even be thanking you for your service. (Probably not. But at least you’ll have seen some great stuff.)
John Adams (HBO Go)
Given the country’s current fascination with all things Hamilton, it’s kind of surprising that HBO isn’t running its own terrific 2008 miniseries about America’s founding fathers on a 24-hour loop. All eight hours and 21 minutes are available for subscribers to stream whenever, though, and the project has held up well, especially now that it serves as a complement (and/or counter-narrative) to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Adams-dissing Broadway smash. Honestly, the core idea behind both is the same: to show how this nation was forged by stubborn, disagreeable visionaries, with foibles galore but plenty of grit and courage to compensate.
All the Way (HBO Go)
Speaking of the premium cable-channel: If you haven’t taken the chance to see the network’s TV movie version of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning play about President Lyndon Baines Johnson, then you’ve missed Bryan Cranston giving one of 2016’s best performances. Though the film is mostly about a a shrewd, temperamental LBJ’s struggles to get a civil rights bill passed before the 1964 election, it also shows how John F. Kennedy’s successor inherited a mess in Vietnam, which he’d ultimately mismanage into a full-blown fiasco. Schenkkan provides a rare and insightful look inside the Oval Office, examining how hard it is for a president to maintain control of an ambitious domestic agenda while the outside world is making its own unpredictable demands.
Patton (Amazon Video)
Is this Best Picture Oscar-winner a critique of the authoritarian military mindset, or a salute to the brilliant tactician who helped America prevail in WWII? The genius of both Francis Ford Coppola’s script and George C. Scott’s lead performance is that they appeal to hawks and doves alive. As a sprawling portrait of controversial General George S Patton — and as a warts-and-all depiction of what it takes to do the messy-but-necessary task of felling fascists — the movie is at once edifying and electrifying.
American Sniper (Max Go)
Speaking of controversial, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the late Chris Kyle’s memoir drew howls of protest when it came out at the end of 2014 — mainly from critics who felt that this true story of an Iraq War marksman bent the facts to make its hero seem noble and his targets look like alien monsters. But thanks in large part to Bradley Cooper’s superb lead performance, the movie serves as a reminder that the men and women we ask to fight our battles make tough snap decisions under intense pressure, and then have to live with the outcome.
The Steel Helmet (Hulu)
Writer-director Samuel Fuller’s war movies are among the best ever made, because the man behind them fought on the front-lines during WWII and developed an unsentimental attitude toward combat. His take on the Korean War is lean and grubby, following a bickering, multi-ethnic band of not-quite-brothers as they risk their lives on a mission deep within enemy territory. This film is a frank report on infantry life as Fuller saw it, where “the good guys” are often awful and “the bad guys” are always lurking just out of sight.
Zero Dark Thirty (Amazon Video)
One of the best films of 2012 (whether or not the Oscar-voters had the balls to recognize it), this rich contemporary war story tells it like it is, documenting the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden without flinching from the often questionable methods the U.S. and others used to get the job done. Director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal avoid moralizing and minimize lionizing, instead watching fairly objectively as one CIA agent (masterfully played by Jessica Chastain) goes through a decade of ups and downs before lucking into an administration (and a Navy SEAL team) that’ll follow through on her intel. The heroine changes a lot along the way. But didn’t we all?
The Great Escape (Amazon Video)
For traditionalists who prefer their military stories with unambiguous heroes and villains, this movie may be the gold standard for wartime entertainment. A rousing WWII POW adventure with complex characters and a twisty plot, The Great Escape doesn’t pretend that the pure-hearted Allies always emerged unscathed when they ran up against the Nazis. It does, however, pay homage to their ingenuity and camaraderie, detailing how these prisoners worked together to make the most of their incarceration.
A Soldier’s Story (Amazon Video)
Ostensibly a murder-mystery, Norman Jewison’s 1984 adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer-winning Off-Broadway hit stars Howard E. Rollins, Jr. as a JAG investigator looking into the murder of an African-American drill sergeant in 1944. The story deals both with bitter, longstanding conflicts within the black community, and how segregation made some good fighting men go a little stir crazy. It also sports early performances by Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, and David Alan Grier — top-tier actors who at the time were also too often sidelined.
Where Eagles Dare (Amazon Video)
Here’s another one aimed at the old-fashioned movie buffs who want straightforward pulpy, ridiculously he-man action: Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood play a mismatched pair of Allied specialists who join with a secret agent (played by Mary Ure) to free a high-ranking U.S. General from an Alpine castle. Packed with eye-popping stunts, shockingly duplicitous characters, and more steely glares per minute than any non-western of the 1960s, Where Eagles Dare serves up balls-out heroism, pure and simple. (Plus, if you’re a Misfits fan, you can spend the entire movie humming “I ain’t no goddamn son of a bitch” to yourself.)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (available to rent)
Yes, an unusual choice, but hear us out: Don’t ever presume that we won’t still have military-style organizations patrolling our space-ways two centuries from now. And while the United Federation of Planets may not be exclusively American, the eclectic crew of the Starship Enterprise does represent our ideals of democracy, inclusion, and endeavor. Plus, their tough fight against the ruthless, tyrannical Khan Noonien Singh is one of their most inspiring adventures, and the movie ends with one of the most emotional death scenes of any item on this list. For one last time before you go to bed on Monday night, you can experience a moment of reverent awe.