1. The Unabashed Heroism of the American Military—Even During a Screwup
Since the title gives it away, I don’t need to issue a SPOILER ALERT to say that Lone Survivor is about a mission gone wrong, in which only one SEAL makes it out alive.
Hollywood action movies tend to go one of two routes—the heroic cartoon, or the “realistic,” ironic, fatalistic film, where violence doesn’t solve anything and soldiers are forced to re-evaluate their former gung-ho attitude, and even the justness of their mission.
The second route is the way to the Oscars.
(Too many commentators put The Deer Hunter in that category, but I defy you to find one act by an American soldier in that film, or even by the officers or staff at the VA hospitals, which is less than valorous. Conservatives should embrace the movie, but that discussion is for another day.)
Lone Survivor is Black Hawk Down on a more personal level. After a botched mission to take out a terrorist commander, outnumbered American warriors face overwhelming odds of survival and kill an unbelievable number of enemies while trying to keep from being overrun.
Instead of a whole city coming after a couple of dozen soldiers, in Lone Survivor four Navy SEALs take on a whole al Qaeda militia, while stuck on the side of a mountain.
Steven Boone writes:
The film opens with a long montage of real-life Navy SEALs in training and ends with a slide show of SEALs and soldiers living full, happy lives off-duty, set to an emotional power ballad. What’s in between amounts to “The Passion of the Christ” for U.S. servicemen: a bloody historic episode recounted mainly in images of hardy young men being ripped apart, at screeching volume. Though Berg’s source material isn’t the New Testament, he often handles Navy Seal Marcus Luttrell’s account (via ghostwriter Patrick Robinson) of his doomed 2005 reconnaissance mission with the thunderous reverence Mel Gibson brought to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.
That’s not even factually correct. The film ends with a montage of the characters in their real lives before the mission, while letting you know what they sacrificed to be there. Showing the photos of the real characters in a film is a common enough final-credits sequence, as can be seen in such movies as Gettysburg and Argo.
And enough with the The Passion of the Christ references already, as though it is some nadir of filmmaking to be trotted out whenever a liberal reviewer wants to mock a movie but can’t quite admit why it bothers him so much. But nearly every negative review of Lone Survivor brings up Gibson’s epic. (Hey, Bernie Goldberg, are you SURE these people don’t get together and determine the narrative?)
Boone goes on… and on:
“Lone Survivor” means well, but what it has to say about the costs of modern warfare is nothing new or especially illuminating. It’s cut from the same cloth that was once fashioned into the Pat Tillman legend and the Saving Private Lynch saga, honoring sacrifice in imagery that the American war machine can easily fashion into a recruitment commercial. “Lone Survivor” makes political interests superfluous to the religion of the warrior, which is all about enduring whatever hardship is thrown at you while protecting the brother at your side.
This is the cheapest of shots, associating the true story of Marcus Luttrell, which has held up and been vetted over the last seven years (George W. Bush awarded the Medal of Honor to mission leader Lt. Michael Murphy), with fog of war stories put out by the Defense Department before all the facts were in.
If Lone Survivor has a fault, it’s that it’s too authentic, with enough jargon and tactics talk to satisfy the military buff, and almost, but not quite, getting so caught in the details that an average viewer will drift off or get lost.
Admitedly, the account of the final rescue and the Pashtun villagers who act heroically is a bit synthesized (I actually thought the book’s account was even more dramatic), but that was probably for reasons of length.
For the most part, however, Lone Survivor deserves a place alongside Black Hawk Down and Zero Dark Thirty as a well-acted, superbly directed, and very well-done depiction of modern warfare and the Americans who get the job done.
In case you think I overstated the case of Boone’s agenda because we disagree about the merits of the film, check out this reply to a reader who took him to task for reading politics into a movie that avoids politics (unlike the book).
Ah, but politics *are* in every facet of life, including the movies. You might mean partisan politics, but filmmaking that glorifies the American war machine and its employees (let’s remember that, whatever their passions and sense of brotherhood, soldiers are paid to do a job) isn’t really a right or left proposition. It’s a weary Ho’wood tradition, carried into the new century with a jolt of Private Ryan/Black Hawk Down caffeine. A great many filmmakers at Berg’s level might be liberal on domestic issues but take a post-9/11 stance on such matters as the War on Terror: whatever it takes, whatever it costs to eliminate the threat….
So, yes. Not a movie for twits.
2. The SEALs’ Major Mistake Was an Act of Mercy
The story turns on the SEALs’ refusal to execute a group of shepherds who stumble upon their very exposed position on the mountainside overlooking the Taliban/al-Qaeda occupied village.
While some of the focus has been on the discussion of the SEALs being worried that “the story on CNN” will be “SEALs kill kids” with an edge of contempt for the liberal media and some shots at the restrictive rules of engagement that also endanger our soldiers, in reality the SEALs did not kill the civilians for one reason:
They wanted to live through the mission, but even more—they wanted to be able to live with themselves after the mission.
While killing the shepherds is discussed, and at least one member says he will go with whatever the commander orders, the forceful arguments are made on the side of mercy.
That Americans died not only to save each other, but essentially for the unwitting shepherds who called Hell down on them, didn’t stop Amy Nicholson at the Village Voice from calling it a “jingoistic snuff film.”
The fact that on several levels (including one that I won’t give away, since it’s part of the story you might not know about) Lone Survivor is a story about mercy escapes most of the reviewers—especially those concerned that the film is a “recruiting film.”
3. Help for Americans from the Native Population
During the war in Iraq, there was much mocking of the idea that anyone would ever treat Americans as liberators– even from the clutches of Saddam Hussein. Supposedly tolerant liberals constantly put out the notion that all those swarthy peoples would naturally bind together in the most tribalistic fashion to out the American invaders, even if they had to join up with those who had been murdering them for centuries.
Sure, some did. Enough to almost lose the war after the disastrous administration of Paul Bremer, but let’s not forget the toppling of the statue and the celebration that followed. Many Iraqi and Afghans fought tyranny before we got there, and many fought alongside Americans.
Seeing this on screen is not part of the dominant “narrative.”
Time magazine’s venerable Richard Corliss, perhaps the dean of American movie critics after the death of Roger Ebert, doesn’t like that much:
This is a movie in three acts, with three competing agendas. It creates macho-men stereotypes to earn sympathy for men occupying a country most of whose inhabitants don’t want them. It then explodes the fantasy of an all-potent U.S. military through the muddle and screwups that can plague any large operation. Finally, it embraces another convention of war movies: civilians so grateful for the intervention of an American soldier that they give him refuge and the means of escape. You are welcome to accept any of these propositions, but it’s hard to buy all three.
Gee, Rich, the fact that all three are a reflection of reality doesn’t faze you?
Apparently not, since he also writes:
That these events actually happened doesn’t necessarily make it plausible or powerful in a movie, or keep it from seeming like convenient propaganda. (emphasis mine)
Essentially, the SEALs are stuck on the side of a rocky, barren mountain with 200 Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters between them and safety. They kill scores of the terrorists who are trying to overrun their position, then jump off what amounts to a cliff, and then start it all over again from a new position. Kill, rinse, repeat.
When I reviewed the book Lone Survivor, knowing that the rights had been sold for a movie, I worried that audiences who didn’t know it was a true story might think the action was over the top if it were filmed accurately.
I didn’t dream that a respected critic would admit the account was factual and call it implausible in the same breath.
Groucho Marx, call your office.
4. Marcus Luttrell Himself
The last thing any leftist wants is for people to read Marcus Luttrell’s great book.
When I reviewed the book Lone Survivor, I wrote,
In his first chapter, Luttrell smacks “lefties” in general and the “liberal media” in particular for being on the wrong side of the Global War on Terror. He openly admires George W. Bush, and he pronounces that Abu Grahib “does not ring my personal alarm bell” in the context of the region’s human rights abuses. He is brutally honest about the rules of engagement that hamper American forces who are fighting terrorists masquerading as civilians. In his criticism, he minces no words.
Here are a few of Luttrell’s own words:
Thus we have an extra element of fear and danger when we go into combat against the Taliban or Al Qaeda — the fear of our own, the fear of what our own navy judge advocate general might rule against us, the fear of the American media and their unfortunate effect on American politicians. We all harbor fears about untrained, half-educated journalists who only want a good story to justify their salaries and expense accounts. Don’t think it’s just me. We all detest them, partly for their lack of judgment, mostly because of their ignorance and toe-curling opportunism. The first minute an armed conflict turns into a media war, the news becomes someone’s opinion, not hard truths. When the media gets involved, in the United States, that’s a war you’ve got a damned good chance of losing, because the restrictions on us are immediately amplified, and that’s sensationally good news for our enemy.
While most of the reviewers—even the most critical, like Steve McFarlane of the aptly named Slant.com, who calls the movie “war porn” while getting basic facts wrong like who led the mission—accept that Peter Berg and company stay true to the basic facts, somehow L.A. Weekly‘s Amy Nicholson knows better:
Luttrell didn’t exactly write his book. Rather than sitting in front of a word processor, he was back in action in Iraq. Instead, the United States Navy hired British novelist Patrick Robinson, who, among other embellishments, upped the number of enemy Taliban fighters from 10 to 200. Hey, whatever, man. Those aliens in Battleship weren’t real, either.
She begins her rant by saying, “Here’s a movie that will flop in Kabul.” She also worries that the movie not only isn’t concerned by how many Taliban are killed, but that Luttrell says near the end of the firefight to one of his wounded comrades, “I’m sorry we didn’t kill more of the mother*****s.”
I’m sure your writing would go over big in Kabul, Amy. Not that girls would be allowed—or in most cases able—to read it.
5. Fighting the Bad Guys Portrayed as a Good Thing to Do, Even When It Goes Badly
Lone Survivor projects an attitude toward war that is basically: War is hell, but it’s what we gotta do, and we have some good guys who are really really good at it.
This is not a revolutionary point, but this is a recounting of a true story, not a philosophical treatise!
The shorthand for those who try to diminish the greatness of Lone Survivor— even those admitting it’s a pretty good movie– goes like this: nothing new, no new insight, nothing to say, lack of perspective, jingoistic. Funny, I think the word they may be searching for is… patriotic?
So, did I fall into the same—if opposing—trap as wannabe Roger Ebert, Stephen Boone? Did I like Lone Survivor BECAUSE of my politics?
But just to show you there are honest critics in the mainstream, I’ll turn to Leonard Maltin, not especially known for his political commentary, to sum the movie up nicely:
There are no false heroics here, only the bravery of men under fire who trust each other with their very lives. The final twist involving Luttrell could only come from a true story, as no one would think to make it up.
Lone Survivor is a tough movie but a rewarding one. It’s humbling to watch this dramatization of the sacrifices these men make, without hesitation. Peter Berg was determined to do justice to them, and he has succeeded.
And even Peter Travers from Rolling Stone gets that character does not have to be developed in long sections of discussion or navel gazing:
But once on duty, Berg (Friday Night Lights, The Kingdom) proves a virtuoso at showing how action defines character. And Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster add to the impact.
Recently I published a book titled The Forest of Assassins, which is based on the still-classified wartime recollections of a very close friend who was among the first SEALs in Vietnam, but who is now deceased. When I see something like this, I think of “Hank,” and wonder what he would think of the movie and how it fits in with all he shared with me—not just tactically but attitude-wise.
I hope there is a screening of Lone Survivor in heaven, and that he gets to watch it with Michael Murphy, Danny Dietz, and Matthew Axelson, along with the men in the helicopters who tried to rescue them. Hoo-ah, my friend.