Most actors who portray military characters on TV or in the movies have never actually served a day in uniform. But despite their lack of real-life experience, a few Hollywood actors stand out for their realistic portrayal of a specific archetype found in the modern military: the Global War on Terror operator’.
Now, technically the term ‘operator’ in the U.S. military is reserved for those serving in so-called tier-one special mission units like Delta Force or SEAL Team 6, but most people lump the entire special operations and intelligence spectrum of elite units under that title. We’re sticking with that broader definition for this not-so-serious list of Hollywood actors-turned-on screen badass.
It’s hard to nail the GWOT operator archetype, but Hollywood has come a long way. We used to see an operator portrayed on-screen as Arnold Schwarzenegger sporting a quad-tube rocket launcher on his shoulder in “Commando”; now we see Chris Pratt rocking quad-tube night vision goggles in “Zero Dark Thirty.” We went from Charlie Sheen saying “I hope these fuckers paid their gas bill” before tossing a grenade in “Navy SEALs” to Josh Brolin shaking off an intense firefight with a Mexican cartel by casually saying, “Got a little nutty, huh?” in “Sicario.” Don’t get me wrong, I love a solid 80s action movie but those characters are a different breed than the GWOT operator.
So, who pulled it off best — so far? We narrowed it down, in no specific order, to our top seven:
Josh Brolin as Matt Graver in “Sicario”
We can easily put “Sicario” in the top 10 movies of the 2010s, and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of government spook Matt Graver was excellent. Anyone who has spent time overseas in a deployed environment has seen a real-life version of Graver around the FOB: he’s that guy who randomly shows up in the JOC or you see around the DFAC, older and nice in a surfer bro kind of way, yet definitely gives off a ‘don’t fuck with me’ vibe. No one knows who he works for; is he just a normal contractor for one of the big defense companies or some Ground Branch something or other? Just like in “Sicario,” nobody actually knows.
Like many of the actors on this list, the performance is just part of the equation; much credit goes to the writers — in this case, Taylor Sheridan. Brolin delivers lines like “Fuckin’ lawyers…” when questioned about his true intentions with all the frustration of someone who has operated in the legal grey on behalf of national security interests for most of their life. Sheridan crushed the screenplay for the whole movie, but he deserves massive kudos for nailing the dialogue necessary to create a believable and authentic Matt Graver.
Chris Pratt as Justin in “Zero Dark Thirty”
“Zero Dark Thirty” is among the most talked about movies to come out of the war on terror, not least of which was how well they cast the movie. Exhibit A: casting Chris Pratt as a Navy SEAL long before he was known as a Marvel comic book hero or, more recently, another SEAL hell-bent on revenge in Jack Carr’s “The Terminal List.”
Back then, Pratt was widely recognized as the chubby, funny guy in “Parks and Recreation,” Andy Dwyer. But he tapped his inner former high school wrestler and slimmed down to nail a believable portrayal of one of the Navy SEALs selected for the bin Laden raid. It wasn’t just his physique though; he balanced his effortless nice guy vibe with just enough sarcasm and professionalism — qualities found throughout the world of special operations.
For example, when he pressed his team leader on why he believed some CIA analyst (who was standing right there) enough to fly deep into Pakistan, risking everyone’s life, the team leader said it was her confidence. Pratt, playing a character named Justin (and wearing a shemagh on his head? WTF?), replied, “That’s the kind of concrete data point I’m looking for. I’ll tell you, buddy, if her confidence is the one thing that’s keeping me from getting ass-raped in a Pakistani prison I’m gonna be honest with you, bro. I’m cool with it.”
Eric Bana as Hoot in “Black Hawk Down”
Do I even need to explain this one? Maybe not, but I will anyway. “Black Hawk Down” is one of the few movies on this list that was not only based on real-life events but also had a tremendous amount of Department of Defense cooperation to ensure accuracy and authenticity. So it’s no surprise that the actors were very believable in their roles, but maybe none more so than Eric Bana as “Hoot.”
Now, “Hoot” was based on real-life Delta Force legend Norm “Hoot” Hooten, and as Task & Purpose previously reported, Bana spent some time with Norm to get his portrayal just right. From being cool under (notional) fire to delivering iconic lines like “This is my safety, sir” and “Y’know what I think? Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window,” Bana single-handedly defined the public perception of a modern special operator — even if this movie was based on an event before the GWOT era. But, some might argue that “Black Hawk Down” the movie would go on to be as influential on the GWOT generation as the actual battle. Sometimes, life imitates art.
David Harbour as Gaspar in “Extraction”
Netflix’s “Extraction” was a sleeper hit in 2020, giving pandemic-weary audiences a heavy dose of action to balance the absurdity of Netflix’s other big pandemic hit, “Tiger King.” Now, I’m not going to claim this movie is ultra realistic or the standard by which all action movies should be judged (that honor goes to “John Wick”), but David Harbour stole the show in his portrayal of a former operator turned ex-pat gun-for-hire.
Admittedly, I’m very biased toward Mr. Harbour as a devout “Stranger Things” fan, but his performance reminded me of someone I know in real life who spent many years as a gunfighter both in and out of uniform, and now permanently lives abroad in between contracts. And that’s pretty much it for me. Harbour doesn’t have any notable lines that make me think “Ooh, that’s so operator of him to say” but his overall appearance and presence are just so believable that he earned a spot on this list.
John Krasinski as Jack Silva in “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”
Like “Black Hawk Down,” the actors in “13 Hours” enjoyed the benefit of being able to talk to the real-life people they portrayed, and like “Zero Dark Thirty,” capitalized on turning a loveable sitcom star into a believable GWOT operator. In this case, Michael Bay took the “The Office” alumnus John Krasinski, told him to grow a beard, and handed him a SIG P226R before turning the cameras on to tell the compelling story of CIA Global Response Staff (GRS) personnel left for dead in an American diplomatic compound under siege in Libya.
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Krasinski is tasked with playing a former Navy SEAL who is new to the team in Benghazi. His mettle is tested straight away in the movie during a tense militant checkpoint stand-off, and by the end of the movie, you are completely convinced that Jim Halpert broke Pam’s heart and left Scranton to become an operator alongside Roy (David Denman), his old romantic nemesis.
Like many on this list, Krasinski captures the hard-to-nail vibe of an operator, but one line stands out above his others in the movie: “Why can’t I go home? Why can’t I go home and just stay there?”
Oof. That cuts deep.
Ben Affleck as Tom “Redfly” Davis in “Triple Frontier”
“Triple Frontier” isn’t a great movie per se, but it’s not bad either. I love this Netflix offering for its representation of veterans and the problems they face, even if the heist-as-a-solution plot isn’t all that believable (or is it?). Honestly, I don’t want to provoke 7th Group here — don’t get any crazy ideas, guys.
In particular, Ben Affleck does a great job of playing Tom “Redfly” Davis, a struggling, alcoholic former Green Beret who has found himself struggling to transition to civilian life as a real estate agent. Does that character sound familiar? It should. It’s a situation many veterans, unfortunately, find themselves in, and it’s completely plausible that Affleck’s Redfly character would rather relive the glory days on a hairy mission in South America than face his demons.
Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson in “Deadpool”
Ryan Reynolds just might be the most believable character on this entire list. In shape? Check. Sarcastic? Check. Has an ends-justify-the-means, devil-may-care brand of bravado? Check. I mean, just listen to the guy:
On rules of engagement: “Yeah, technically, this is a murder. But some of the best love stories start with a murder.”
On mental health: “Life is an endless series of trainwrecks with only brief commercial-like breaks of happiness.”
On the economy of violence: “Okay guys, I only have twelve bullets, so you’re all going to have to share!”
There’s just no way around it, Deadpool is operator as fuck. And according to Marvel canon, Wade Wilson earned a long tab before his Deadpool days.
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